Brothers Bill and Turner Ross are two of the most inventive documentary filmmakers in the United States. Based in New Orleans, they’re know for such docs as 2012’s “Tchoupitoulas,” which played at South by Southwest, and “Western,” telling a complicated cross-border tale in Texas. It also played at 2015’s South by Southwest and won the Louis Black Award.
Their latest, “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” was scheduled to play at the 2020 South by Southwest Film Festival, but the pandemic upended those plans. Now it’s being made available on streaming platforms.
The film stretches the boundaries of the documentary form somewhat, and it’s not a spoiler to talk about those stretches, since the Ross brothers have said they think it’s important to discuss. For years, they say, they have dreamed of making a film about the denizens of a dive bar that’s about to close — and how those folks react to the loss of a communal place.
The idea was explored by director Eagle Pennell in 1983’s Texas-based “Last Night at the Alamo,” and the Ross brothers also cite Eugene O’Neill’s bar-based play “The Iceman Cometh” as inspiration.
For “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets,” the directors were drawn to the sketchy bars on the outskirts of Las Vegas. So they shot some establishing shots and started looking for the right feel on the wrong side of town. They didn’t find it, and for a number of reasons, including money, they decided to pretend that the movie was about a Vegas bar called The Roaring 20s, but instead based all the interior scenes in a New Orleans bar.
They also chose the cast, including the main character, Michael, played by Michael Martin, whom the brothers describe as a struggling New Orleans actor occasionally seen on local stages.
The movie starts with him as he becomes one of the first customers of the Roaring 20s as it opens on its final morning. We see him shaving in the bar’s bathroom, and he’s carrying around a bunch of library books. And after cleaning up his face, he starts doing shots of whiskey, followed by sips of coffee. We see that he’s friends with the burly morning bartender and others who come in. And we watch as the cameras try to capture the idea of alcoholics who come together to escape the world outside.
The directors bring in all sorts of characters, of varying races and ages and sexual orientation. There’s some stage direction, but not much. “While it does read as a community in the film, most of these people didn’t know each other until the day we filmed,” Turner Ross said in interview earlier this year. “So it was an extraordinary experiment to see if that would work. And then when on the second day of filming, when one of our older guys is actually crying because he has to leave the bar, we realized that community is what you choose to declare.”
The brothers say that they feel like they weren’t going to get what they wanted — to show what they had experienced — without creating this scenario. But they didn’t write a script. “If we need to create a framework to elicit it, and if we then need to editorialize in order for a viewer to have that experience in the way the we feel is most powerful, then that is what we’re going to do,” Turner Ross said in press materials for the film.
Viewers can take issue with such boundary-stretching, but it actually works in “Blood Nose, Empty Pockets,” which features spontaneous moments such as a 60-year-old woman getting more than a bit tipsy and raising her T-shirt to show off her still-perky breasts. There’s also a Vietnam vet with stories to tell but without the language to tell them. And various well-known other types of barflies enter and leave the picture as the long day turns into a long last night that includes a motherlike bartender whose son is smoking pot with friends outside the back bar door.
During the day, before everyone gets drunk, the TV is on and the bar patrons and bartender are watching “Jeopardy!” They don’t do well with the questions, as you might expect. But before long, Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces” and Roy Orbison’s “Crying” are playing in the background, and the evening dive begins.
The shoot was obviously challenging, since their subjects are literally getting drunk, but the directors don’t take great pains to fool the viewer into what is happening. We can sometimes see reflections of the filmmakers in the various mirrors in the bars. And the stories that emerge are touching.
Michael, the guy with the books, greets various people, and they ask how he’s doing. He replies, “I’m working a lot and acting a little,” as he does in real life, apparently. But by the end of the day, he’s uttering drunken truths like: “Nothing is more boring than a guy who used to do stuff but doesn’t do stuff anymore because he is in a bar.”
It’s a funny thing. That might be true.
But it’s not true of “Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.”
The movie is streaming on the Austin Film Society website, austinfilm.org.