This Saturday, outdoor cafes reopen in Belgium after almost seven months of closure. To get into the mood or dream of better times when we’re welcome inside again till the early hours, here’s a round of three bar films on Sabzian.
A pub crawl through the history of film could start in one of the joints in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003), continue in the Golden Horn from Barfly (Barbet Schroeder, 1987) to hang out with Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, and finish in Béla Tarr’s Titanik Bar from Damnation (1988) or at the bar called Novel that the characters in Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives (2011) keep ending up in.
Instead, we’ve selected three docufiction films that portray a night out on the town, spent completely (or mostly) inside of bars. After months drinking with men he met on New York’s Skid Row, independent film pioneer Lionel Rogosin worked with them to write a screenplay that reflected their lives and then cast his drinking buddies as themselves in what would become On the Bowery (1956). Similarly, filmmaker Kent Mackenzie began to hang around in the bars of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill district with some of the young Native Americans who’d left reservation life for the big city. After months, he broached the subject of working together on a script based on their own experiences, which led to the story of one wild night in The Exiles (1961).
Directly influenced by Rogosin and Mackenzie, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (2020) chronicles the closing night of a Las Vegas dive bar. What appears to be an ethnographic record was actually filmed in a still active bar in New Orleans with people who aren’t regulars there. Shot on the day after Donald Trump’s presidential election, Bill and Turner Ross captured eighteen hours of consecutive footage with digital handheld cameras for their construction of the real.
Another ideal companion piece to this film, that unfortunately isn’t streaming yet, would be Luis López Carrasco’s El año del descubrimiento [The Year of Discovery] (2020) – an almost three-and-a-half-hour split-screen docufiction film staged in a bar in Cartagena, Spain, where customers discuss the political and economic history of the region. Here you can watch a video essay by La vida útil magazine on the film and the functions of bars in cinema and our lives, including an extract from The Exiles. Cheers!
In memory of actor Michael Martin who opens and closes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Martin passed away last Monday, on April 26th.
On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956) is available on Vimeo, iTunes and Amazon Prime (US).
The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961) is available on Vimeo and Amazon Prime (US).
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill and Turner Ross, 2020) is available on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and Kanopy.
A semi-fictionalized portrait of the Bowery, one of the most notorious and raucous neighborhoods of New York, and its forgotten population of down-and-outs and barflies.
Ray Salyer: Anything for a drink, huh?
Gorman Hendricks: Yeah, I reckon.
Ray Salyer: Oh, well. That's the way it goes.
Gorman Hendricks: Well, it's the Bowery way.
“I got restless, so one day I wandered along the Bowery with a camera, and there you are… Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that.”
“The faces in On the Bowery are far from pretty: Bristled, drawn, swollen, and dented from hard luck and probably even harder drinking, they’re portraits from what a priest in the film calls ‘the saddest and maddest street in the world,’ and they tell the real story.”
“It is a film of indelible portraiture; the plot, as it is, exists largely to transfer our protagonists (and the camera) between congregations of winos, from gin mills to games of dominos around a flophouse common room’s pot-bellied stove, from a listless sermon at the Bowery Mission to bums in a side street squeezing a ‘Good morning’ cup of pink lady from a can of Sterno. All throughout, the film looks hard at that which we’re accustomed to turning away from, exposing a litany of exploded hairdos, gardens of gin blossoms, trench-like worry lines, loose blubbery lips, toppled orthodontia, eyes glistening from burrows, noses pitted like no-man’s-land or broken across the bridge (even a couple of visages that are positively Beckettian). In numerous bar scenes, the atmosphere is palpable: the Rheingold on tap, the raw onions in the beards, the cracked-leather barstools soaking up rancid farts.”
The story of one wild but typical night in the lives of three young American Indians who have left their reservations to live in downtown Los Angeles
“Homer, Yvonne and Tommy are involved in a deeply complex and confused situation, roughly that of being unwilling to adapt to the current dominant culture, and unable to return to the ancient forbears. I wanted to reveal all the facets of their dilemma, including the question, ‘Are they actually aware of their situation?’ No theatrical or documentary approach – in which a problem is stated and the decisions and actions of the characters proceed either to achieve or suggest a patent solution – seemed suitable for the film. The situation in which these people are involved could not be brought to a stage and re-enacted. The thousands of details involved in their environment could never be duplicated. So, we decided to shoot the entire film on location, and subordinate direction, action, movement and lighting so that the surroundings, actions and reactions of these people would, on film, honestly portray their situation and emotions.”
“Somehow the ‘real people,’ as the introductory titles designate them, seem to end up in a fiction, and the actors in a documentary.”
“Like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, The Exiles is a gritty and poetic, frills-free depiction of a marginalized Los Angeles community. Both films did not get theatrical release; were featured in Thom Andersen’s film Los Angeles Plays Itself; and were restored by Ross Lipman at the UCLA Film & Television Archives.”
“Most of the crew members of The Exiles were young film makers who had been out of the University for two or three years. We had outlived the romance of our first jobs and had discovered that the industry was not waiting with open arms to welcome ‘young geniuses,’ particularly those interested in reality. When we looked at the films on which we were employed and the films in the theaters and on television, we were puzzled. In very few of them did we see any reflection of the life we saw around us or any attempt to examine real questions and problems. We reacted strongly against what we perceived in these films, and this energy became one of the forces which led to the production of The Exiles.”
“The Exiles has been exhibited at several festivals, and took first prize at Mannheim. It has not yet been shown in American theatres – and there is some doubt that it will be, as it makes no concessions to the box-office. But, in the future, those who are interested in the American motion picture, are likely to refer to 1961 not in terms of the big Hollywood productions, but as the year of The Exiles and Sunday.”
“I have been going out to movies almost every night for a few days, and it has helped my confidence a lot – I don’t mean that we do better, but that certainly guys with interests like ours are no longer standing alone. Most impressive film I’ve seen in years was 400 Blows, although a lot of disappointing things about it. The Mistress was a real dog, but Aparajito I liked, although I didn’t feel as close to it as 400 Blows. Over the weekend I’ll take in The Lovers and Wild Strawberries so don’t be surprised when you see our film to see different styles in all sequences, depending on what I saw the night before I did the final trim.”
Listen to Charles Burnett and Sherman Alexie speak about the film here:
- 1. Kent Mackenzie in a promotional flyer for the Edinburgh Film Festival, 1961.
- 2. Thom Andersen, “Happy Daze”. Film Comment 46, no. 2 (2010): 20.
- 3. Milestone Films, promotional text accompanying the trailer.
- 4. Kent Mackenzie, “A Description and Examination of the Production of The Exiles: A Film of the Actual Lives of a Group of Young American Indians”, Los Angeles: University of Southern California, (1964): 6.
- 5. Pauline Kael, as quoted in the press kit, 2009.
- 6. Kent Mackenzie in a letter to cameraman Erik Darstaad, 1959.
In the shadows of the bright lights of Las Vegas, it’s last call for a beloved dive bar known as the Roaring 20s. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets is a mosaic of disparate lives, teetering between dignity and debauchery, reckoning with the past as they face an uncertain future, and singing as their ship goes down.
“[T]he film moves ahead with a loopy lurch-and-stagger cadence; like a drunk trying to spit out a story, it can sometime seem to have lost the script entirely. It conveys something of the savor of leaking toilets and a dozen cigarette butts drowning in the dregs of a plastic cup of gin-and-tonic. And yet after all the slurring and sloppiness and sloshed sentimentality when you emerge from the film, blinking, into the hard light of day, you may feel you have gleaned something essential about what it is to be living in the United States through the second decade of the 21st century, or about what it is to be alive, or about the particular half-life of going on a good, knee-walking drunk.
Such rare verities were achieved through quiet acts of cinematic imposture. The Roaring ’20s is not, in fact, closing. Some deceptive exteriors notwithstanding, it also isn’t located in the precincts of Las Vegas, but rather on the tatty outskirts of New Orleans, where the Ross brothers have for some time been based. Martin is a trained theater actor, and though his cohort at the bar are in most cases habitués of local dives playing unscripted versions of themselves, they are doing so in a planned and prepared environment with full cognizance of their participation in a film, even if the very real heavy pours from the bar might occasionally blunt that cognition.”
“We did a primary day shoot where we allowed some of the old-timers to move into the space, to start to really inhabit it, to start to build comfort and familiarity, and for us to also understand the space. That first shoot was like a nonstop ten-hour day shoot, two-camera, closed set. And we learned so much about how we were doing it, and what their arcs were. So that when we embarked on the 18-hour shoot with the full cast, we had a good sense of where things were gonna go, and so did the old-timers, who were the regulars. [...] While we certainly influenced the space with different stimuli and the comings and goings of different characters, we really did let the thing go, and I guess for all intents and purposes we were documenting it.”
Flavia Dima: You have these insertions of clocks throughout the film, which is a nice nod to the history of cinema. What was your structuring principle, beyond the notion of time passing in a limited space and period, and the concept of building sequences?
Bill Ross IV: Tough question. I think we broke it down to – over the course of two years of editing – the level of drunkenness, among other things.
Turner Ross: The five stages of grief too. And time of day.
Bill: The color wheel [laughs]. Anytime there’s text on screen, that’s basically a new chapter, a breath before we get another 10-15 minutes. The jukebox helped quite a bit in building these, like, pockets.
Turner: Maybe say something about your initial impulse to make unbroken scenes and where you arrived at.
Bill: Yeah! So I wanted to do this since Tchoupitoulas (2012): to make a film that’s just like, ten shots, seven-minute-long. So we shot it like that, in veeery long takes throughout the bar, so the first cut was like, three and a half hours [...]. But our friends told us that didn’t work.
MUBI Notebook interview with the Ross brothers3
Nicolas Rapold: What were some cinematic touchstones for you that have really captured some of these feelings of life in a bar?
Bill: Have you seen that UCLA is doing an American neorealism show? Someone sent me that the other day, and I thought, these are all our references for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets. Dusty and Sweets McGee (Floyd Mutrux, 1971), The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961), On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956). Lions Love (… and Lies) (1969) by Agnès Varda was a really big one… What else was our cheat sheet?
Turner: Eugene O’Neill [The Iceman Cometh, 1939; Long Day's Journey into Night, 1956]…
Bill: Fat City (John Huston, 1972) is a great one. That probably has the best bar scene of all time. So real.
Film Comment interview with the Ross brothers4
“Husbands (1970) should probably be only ninety minutes, but we appreciate the fact that John Cassavetes just doesn’t stop, and that these actors give you space to just be in the room with them. You’re spending time with these rather reprehensible people. We picked this movie specifically for its long drinking scene, which is so rowdy and gross but also so real. At times it feels forced, but in certain moments, like when Peter Falk takes his pants off, you feel like that couldn’t have been in the script – but maybe it was! It also feels like the camera isn’t looking at them, that instead Cassavetes created a scenario in which the filmmaker and the characters are in it together. That’s what we try to do with our films; we want to create dynamic scenarios in which we’re not pointing the camera at but being a part of, scenarios that have the ability to take on a life of their own. We want to capture not only what’s intended but what is revealed.”
Bill and Turner Ross5
- 1. Nick Pinkerton, “A Conversation with Bill and Turner Ross,” Reverse Shot, 31 July 2020.
- 2. Quoted from Nick Pinkerton, “A Conversation with Bill and Turner Ross,” Reverse Shot 31 July 2020.
- 3. Flavia Dima, “An Alchemy of the People: The Ross Brothers Discuss "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets",” MUBI Notebook, July 9, 2020.
- 4. Nicolas “Interview: Bill and Turner Ross,” Film Comment, 23 January 2020
- 5. “The Ross Brothers’ Top 10,” Criterion Collection, August 1, 2020.