Wednesday 23 December 2020

Last chance saloon: "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets"

Publicans will shed tears watching Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets behind shuttered doors this Christmas. An extraordinarily evocative relic of the old world, the latest in documentarist siblings Bill and Turner Ross's finegrained studies of unromantic, everyday American life parks its camera behind the bar as the Roaring 20's [sic] Cocktail Lounge in Las Vegas opens for its final day and closing night party, and watches as, one by one, the barflies take their seats. Early on, we learn the lounge has fallen prey to Vegas's ongoing gentrification, but it seems as likely to have suffered from a uniquely lax door policy. That phrase "cocktail lounge" raises expectations of glamour and sophistication that the Roaring 20's [sic], a small, garishly lit hole-in-the-wall, cannot meet; its core clientele of straggly-haired, prematurely aged dudes - and, initially at least, it's almost exclusively dudes - bring in their own food and drugs, knock back beers by the crate, and squirrel themselves away among the bar's fleabitten sofas, confident they have nowhere else to go for the day, or the century. One regular resembles Twin Peaks' Killer Bob, if Killer Bob had taken up a weed habit rather than terrorising bobbysoxers. Another suggests a permanently befuddled Einstein. Late in the day, a bearded fellow in suit and tie shows up - from work? - and he looks like Elliott Gould playing an irascible drunk in the seventh best film of 1975. (This isn't the first or last occasion we seem to be trapped under amber nectar, out of regular time.) Bottom line: unless you were feeling very adventurous or thirsty, you wouldn't spend any more time between these walls than you had to. The Rosses, bless 'em, stuck around until last orders, kept rolling, and allowed this bar's true character to reveal itself, shortly before its doors were closed, padlocked and bulldozed for good.

As becomes apparent over the course of a very boozy blowout, the old dive does have character - more so, one suspects, than anything put up in its place. Unlike a previously representative American hostelry, the Roaring 20's [sic] is not necessarily a place where everybody knows your name; more likely, the patrons have been told your name two or three times before completely forgetting it. Nevertheless, they'd slap you perhaps a little too forcefully on the back, offer to shout you a drink, and not grouse unduly if you added your woes to the miseries and regrets piling up on the bar like discarded peanut shells. It's an oddly egalitarian venue: you come as you are - young/old, black/white, cis/trans - and no-one bats an eyelid, though that's less down to a general wokeness than your stoolmates' desire to drink themselves into a stupor. The Rosses, somewhat amazingly, appear to have remained sharp-eyed and sober; they've honed their fly-on-the-wall observation to a fine, discreet art. Maybe it's the alcohol, but beyond a certain point in the afternoon, no-one seems to have noticed the camera(s) patrolling the room, or to have become remotely self-conscious or inhibited. One of the more entrenched patrons, a burly Aussie who's brought tabs of acid as party favours, enlivens the post-prandial session by momentarily lowering his trousers. A hiccuping sixty-year-old flashes her breasts before going flying over a table. 

It's a film of futzing, temporary connections, connections that can't go anywhere and more often feel like collisions: variably broken people, thrown together in the one place that is as eccentric-dysfunctional as they themselves are, talking in variably broken English in such a way as to suggest they might just be able to pull some part of their lives back together if they drank up and stumbled out into the real world before sunrise. On a technical level, it's also a real triumph of sound mixing (raise a glass to Kyle Sheehan and Tom Efinger), ensuring those fractured conversations come through crystal clear while a TV blasts old movies, the jukebox gives up easy listening, and an impromptu Spice Girls singalong breaks out in the corner. There's a pickled wit amid the sloshed waffle (quoth Michael Martin, a writer-actor-regular as gloriously lived-in as some of the furniture: "I pride myself on not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure"), and miraculously we hear almost every word of it. You may need a tolerance for such waffle - which at least runs the gamut, from the motives of John Wilkes Booth to the slack of an ex-husband's nuts - but the Rosses have soaked up the ambience in this place as the bar's carpet soaked up Bud, piss and tears. Their film provides one hell of a send-off, for both the year in movies and this fairylit graveyard of hopes and dreams. Farewell, Roaring 20's [sic]: we shall not see your like again.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets will be available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema from tomorrow, and is scheduled to open in selected cinemas from January 1.

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