Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is released nationwide on Curzon Home Cinema 24th December
Many of us will have had one or two pubs or bars in our life that became a centre of community and friendship. The doors a gateway to familiar faces, political debates, tears and drunken laughter; the bar staff celebrating the creation of an alcohol-fuelled family. For me, that place was the Rainbow and Dove. A gay local that became a second home to me for many years. Every face offering a familiar smile; every conversation laced with humour and every bar stool occupied by the same regular punter’s. The bar staff full of optimism, care and love for each person who walked through the door.
It all sounds perfect, right? Well in many ways it was. But, there was also a darker side to the joy and belonging. With many regular drinkers sitting from the mid-morning too late evening; alcohol their escape and demon as their personality slowly changed throughout the day under the influence. The pub a mere refuge, home and safety net, unconditionally taking money for the escapism offered.
Over the year’s many films and TV shows have attempted to reflect this unique environment. However, few have managed to embrace both the darkness and light the bar creates at the heart of community life. But, with Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, directors Bill and Turner Ross capture a rare honesty in reflecting the ecosystem of the bar. In a smart, engaging and addictive film that glows with originality.
Labelled as a documentary, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is something far more complex in construct and delivery; a constructed reality movie set in Las Vegas, but filmed in New Orleans. Its narrative centring on the final night of a cosy, shabby community bar. Its mix of fiction and reality wrapped in sublime humour and powerful emotion. Here, the punter’s are all hand-picked non-professional actors, brought together to create the final night of the fictional ‘Roaring 20s’ bar. With the audience submerged into the relationships, conversations and arguments of the punters. In a bar that while partly fictional, captures a rarely displayed realism. Of course, this will lead some viewers to question whether Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, is nothing more than a trick; a glorious deception.
In part, it is just that. With the final film, not the complete reality it pretends to be. But, in its constructed realism Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets also reflects its environment. After all, drinking venues are themselves a constructed reality – from the design of the environment to the alcohol-fuelled friendships that often end at the door. Our pubs and bars are a form of theatre, and the Ross Brothers not only understand this but play with the fantasy of the drinking venue. Their small, but perfectly formed film creating the same illusion as the bar it reflects. With the customers a dysfunctional orchestra and the bar staff conductors of the unruly ensemble.
However, dig even deeper and Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets offers a deep exploration of the slow gentrification of our drinking venues, and the erosion of the traditional pub and bar. In a world where chain venues, and gastro-pubs reign supreme. The dysfunctional family of the local, replaced by two-for-one meals, cocktails and burgers. While at the same time, the theatre of the pub and its orchestra of diverse voices is drowned out by a need to be ‘family-friendly’. Of course, for many bars and pubs, this transition has been made out of a necessity to survive. But, in the process, community space has been lost in favour of profit. The victims, more often than not, the lost and lonely who relied on the escapism and belonging the bar offered.
But alongside the deeper social conversations raised, the Ross Brothers create an environment where beautiful moments of human connection appear out of nowhere. The walls of the small, neon-lit bar a theatre of debate, music, dance and poetry. A safe, booze laden haven of human connection, where even the lost and lonely find peace and belonging.
There are, of course, wider questions raised concerning constructed reality filmmaking of this nature. And Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is certainly not afraid to generate debates on the interface between reality, fiction and staged drama. Its narrative joyously reflecting the realities of life, while equally retaining a degree of control over the destiny of its characters. The smart, assured, and delicate direction of the film only pouring fuel on the fire of what constitutes a documentary.
Equally, some may find the film’s exploration of the fulltime drunk challenging and at times, Laissez-faire. However, in truth, individual drinking does not stop when pubs cease to offer space to those who live their lives at the end of a bottle; the safety of the bar stool ultimately replaced by home drinking. A change that only increases the vulnerability of the individual. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets never seeks to answer these complex social questions relating to alcohol. But, it does reflect the need for belonging, safety and community. And the vital place pubs hold in our social connections and sense of place; both for good and bad.
For me, constructed reality or not, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is one of the most authentic, engaging and real depictions of bar life ever committed to film. Its themes of belonging, acceptance and family wrapped in a wider conversation on the slow erosion of our community pubs and bars. While at the same time taking the viewer on an unforgettable night out, among characters who jump from the screen and into your heart.
Read more from BFI London Film Festival 2020 here