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What Was the Dive Bar?

A new movie invokes the lurid charm of the local drinking hole—and challenges our conception of what makes a documentary.

Courtesy of Cinetic/Bill and Turner Ross

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets seems like a familiar kind of story, at first. Although it’s not fiction, like Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend or Eugene O’Neill’s play The Iceman Cometh, the documentary also celebrates the alcoholic dissipation of the American everyman. A dive bar called the Roaring 20s on the fringe of Las Vegas is closing down forever, and a tangle of regulars and bartenders gather to celebrate, get wasted, and cry into their Buds.

This is the fifth film from the brothers Bill and Turner Ross. We open en plein air, on an asphalt wasteland. The film quality is slightly grainy, the color washed out, as shots of Vegas exurbia streak past. A man with long white hair ambles toward a building with no windows, pulls back the door, and there it is: home.

Even in the daytime the Roaring 20s is a uterine environment: dark, safe, and difficult to get out of. Bric-a-brac adheres to the walls and the ceiling, and the lights never brighten beyond a six o’clock gloom. One by one we meet its people.

There’s Michael, a washed-up actor who is proud to declare that he became a failure before he became an alcoholic. He starts the film with his head on the bar, but later he will be lit from inside by alcohol and rush into the arms of a gorgeous brunette named Rikki. There’s Bruce, the soft-eyed, weepy military veteran, and Pam, a 60-year-old wildchild, prone to toplessness and flirting with the younger patrons. Rikki herself is a joy, her regal face stiff from procedures in a way that matches her ice-queen, deadpan wit. For most of the movie, an Australian man named John sits mutely at the bar, gazing into his beer while tripping hard on acid.

For some of these people, the end of Roaring 20s is an opportunity. Shay and Tra (they rhyme) will move somewhere else and start over. Pete is young enough to get his life back together. For Bruce, however, this is an apocalypse. Pam soothes him as he cries. “What really hurts me is that we fought for this country and they treat us like shit,” he says as tears roll down his face, her thumbs rising to meet them. As she brushes them into a wet glaze she says she knows that the bar was like his family.

There’s no plot as such, just fights and jokes and tears. So far, so predictable; Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets initially comes across as a heartwarming story about misfits and community. But then you start to notice the cameras.

You can see people filming, now and then, in the bar back mirrors. The cameras are not prominent, but they’re there, which doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film’s style. None of the subjects ever speak into the camera, nor are the cameras ever acknowledged as part of the “reality” of the bar, so why not keep them out of frame?

The presence of the cameras in the mirrors draws attention to the Rosses’ process, which turns out to be highly idiosyncratic. The shoot went like this: Over three days, they filmed a group of people improvising in a New Orleans bar, then later cut those scenes with footage from around Las Vegas to make the purported location credible. The cast are not professional actors but rather a mixture of charismatic people the brothers already knew personally and strangers they’d cast after meeting them in situ, at dive bars. Their job was essentially to be themselves. They drank, had a good time, sometimes cried, and sometimes fought. Now and again the brothers introduced prompts (putting Jeopardy! on the bar TV, for example) or made concessions to the actors’ demands (playing music, even though it made recording audio harder).

This semi-fictional approach has several bewildering effects on the film. At the level of genre, it feels like a betrayal to find out that this documentary isn’t “true.” I felt deceived when I learned how the Rosses had made it—then interested by my own irritation. The brothers Ross did not write a script, for example, but instead distilled one out of many hours of raw footage.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a fictional documentary made with techniques more usually associated with nonfiction, such as sifting through hours of archival dross in order to recover two seconds of great footage. The difference is that the Rosses have orchestrated the dross themselves. Their approach works well for the purposes of comedy. Scenes end in perfect punchlines that betray obsessive editing. Moments of almost unbelievable synchronicity occur—as they always will, if you cut out enough of the boring parts of life.

The ethics of filming drunk people are tricky. Documentaries can be just as artistically mannered as any kind of movie, but they are all implicated in the difficult dilemma of the observer effect, meaning that just by being present, the documentarian will change the environment they are recording, and inevitably exert some kind of control over the process. We have long grown used to the idea of documentarians like Errol Morris and Werner Herzog shaping the truth—rather than merely documenting it—but in this instance, the Ross brothers are literally enabling the alcoholics to get drunker. Then they stay to film it, for our entertainment.

Can such a filmmaker claim to be filming reality at all? In a Q&A with the brothers circulated by the film’s distributor, Turner Ross said that was beside the point. “We’re not trying to exist under the guise of documentary,” he said. “We want to use reality, naturalism, realism, things that are around us and available to make these hand-made movies together.… And it happened that the palette that we paint with is gleaned from real life.” There’s no denying the realness of the people in this film, even if they’re not quite who they say they are.

The Ross brothers seem to be arguing that a person who is technically lying can still be truthful, as long as they’re “being themselves.” It’s helpful to compare the movie to classic partially scripted substance documentaries like The Exiles (1961) or Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), which the Rosses reference in their cinematography. Like those films, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is concerned with a version of truth that lies with the addicts themselves. Reality is in their humanity, not the world around them.

The brothers have made several other movies in the same style: 45365 (2010), a tribute to their hometown of Sidney, Ohio; Tchoupitoulas (2012), about a big night out in New Orleans; and the Wild West–style doc Western (2015). As in the new film, they also whittled these tight documentaries out of long hours of tape. “We may be authors or provocateurs,” Turner goes on in the Q&A, “but we haven’t coached these performances out of these people, these people are giving us an authentic piece of their lives.”

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a provocative film and a challenge to the way we still pigeonhole art by genre. “Filmmaker,” “actor,” and “drunk” all become performers, drawing our attention away from the problem of whether this is fiction and toward the possibility of a third option.