The mostly unscripted tale of a hole-in-the-wall’s end asked real people to play semi-real versions of themselves.
You’re right to be a little wary of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets.
The recently released “documentary” from New Orleans’ based indie darlings Bill Ross IV and Turner Ross wears those quotation marks with pride, in a premise that will cause a preemptive eye-roll from less forgiving filmgoers. The story follows the last day of a fictional Las Vegas dive bar and the clientele who made it a place, and it does so using a platoon’s worth of non-actors sourced from around the metro area.
The mostly unscripted tale of a hole-in-the-wall’s end asked real people to play semi-real versions of themselves in an actual Terrytown dive where the booze was anything but fictional. As one of the only trained actors on set, and the film’s protagonist, Michael Martin worried about just how exploitative the final product might be.
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“I have also done one or two let’s not let the actors act, let’s put them all in a room together and put them under stress,” he said. “The constant presence of booze on top of the way that it was shot made me worry about it.”
Those fears almost caused him to walk away from the project, as he initially balked when he arrived on the set and saw the “cast.” Confronted with the harsh reality that the Rosses were looking to create, Martin struggled with the idea of being one “derelict” among many. The Rosses told Martin that they couldn’t put him on camera if he was going to be hostile to the very idea of the project, ultimately getting Martin to the point that he declined their offer to leave.
“Whether it was actor’s ego or the fact that I was there already or just general argumentativeness, I said ‘no,’” he said.
That decision paid off in more ways than one. Martin’s wariness of the surroundings comes through in his performance as Michael, a homeless man who sweeps up the doomed bar and lives on the premises. While the other burnouts that fill out the inside of the Roaring ‘20s bar are mourning a loss of community, Michael’s mind is thrumming with the nerve-wracking reality of being back on the street.
“I’m not relaxed and enjoying myself,” he said of his day spent on set. “It works for the character and his sense of hopelessness and ‘what the f*** am I going to do next’-iveness.”
In real-life, it seems that Martin’s wariness was more akin to the feeling you get while standing on a precipice. Simply put, the Ross’ set felt so weird and uncomfortable because they were using it to create something entirely new.
“I’ve read most of the press pretty carefully. When the more knowledgeable critics start unspooling about its techniques and its frame of reference, there isn’t much frame of reference,” he said of reviews. “They’re aren’t many antecedents to this. That being the case, I think I’m at peace with how they got to it. But I wasn’t happy that day.”
If you’re willing to put aside initial trepidations in the way that Martin did, you’ll find an incredible payoff in the finished product of Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. It’s a loving portrait of an entire class of people who get very little love in their day to day lives, a carefully crafted story that preserves pickled livers in amber. Though the story is set in a crumbling Las Vegas for thematic reasons, any local viewers won’t have trouble placing the scene among any number of New Orleans’ dingier watering holes.
Martin believes that the casting for the mostly real documentary had to be done in New Orleans, as our barflies have an inborn performative streak that is not present elsewhere.
“What ‘New Orleans crazies’ have that other towns don’t have is a sense of self-presentation, that goes up and down the culture from well-to-do to bottom-of-the-barrel. Everybody in New Orleans is ready to put on a show at a moment’s notice,” he said. “They were counting on people to create a sense of lived in-ness and familiarity and story in a single day’s shoot. For that, you need New Orleanians. Everybody on the street is ready to put on a song and dance for you for the price of a quarter and a cigarette. That’s a very particular kind of demonstrative craziness that you don’t find many other places.”
The story of a neighborhood haunt shuttering hits particularly hard as local, low-rent establishments are shuttering across the country, fighting the unexpected catastrophe of COVID-19 and the entirely-by-design assault of rising rents and gentrification. In spite of that, and the story presented in Bloody Nose, Martin believes that bars like the one in the Ross’ film are far from a dying breed.
“I think they’re being squeezed out all over the country,” he admits. “I think they’ll survive anyway because we’re creating an underclass just as fast as we can. There will always be someplace that they gather.”
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is available to stream now on demand.