Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
This week I take a look at two films “opening” in the On Demand world. They couldn’t be more different from each other, so a little whiplash is involved. One, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, is offered in a way that will benefit SIFF; check this link for details on how that happens.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets / Summerland
In my film class this week I taught Agnès Varda’s Vagabond, a superb film that mixes a fictional story with visible documentary elements: interviews (presumably scripted) with real farmers and workers, authentic locations. The combination of different textures produces effects both realistic and jarring.
That blurring of the line between documentary and fiction gets an extreme exercise in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, an affecting film that takes place during the last day of a dive bar in Las Vegas (shot mostly in New Orleans). The people on screen do not appear to be actors (although one of them, the grandiloquent Michael Martin, has experience as a performer). They look and sound authentically road-weary, their faces and voices strained by years of hard living and questionable decisions. According to some accounts of the filming, the dialogue was not scripted, although the people are reacting to a fictional situation, the shuttering of the bar.
What unfolds, as directed by brothers Bill and Turner Ross, is a boozy lament for the passing of community. It’s peppered with slurred monologues and quick exchanges, eventually settling in a groove of sad sentiment. (I wonder whether the Ross brothers ever saw a Rod Serling Night Gallery episode evocatively called They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar.) Some of that sentiment feels very familiar, in a mid-20th-century kind of way, but what keeps Bloody Nose from descending into easy hokum is its gallery of people. They bring life and mystery to the constructed situation, from the veteran who quietly sings along to “The Gambler” by himself to the younger barfly whose rant about baby boomers ruining everything sounds especially hollow given his own shortcomings.
I didn’t entirely buy everything the Ross brothers offered (even if Battleship Potemkin really was playing on a bar TV); the moments when the film seems to be reaching to say something About America are less convincing than the nitty-gritty of barstool behavior. Luckily, the latter is in abundance, and the bustle of activity they capture during the story’s 24-hour dawn-to-dawn timespan has an uncanny rhythm; plus, the Ross brothers never let anyone overstay his welcome—the latter point especially impressive, given how quickly drunkards can become tiresome. I even found the vaguely-heard catalog of 1970s jukebox hits playing in the background to be haunting, those stubborn recycled songs that will apparently never leave our heads; this movie knows that “Green-Eyed Lady” will still be playing as our national Titanic sinks. This is an odd, defiant, memorable movie.
Its risk-taking is in contrast to Summerland, a British film written and directed by Jessica Swale. Set during WWII near the white cliffs of Dover (but with flashbacks to the 1920s), the central situation involves a writer (Gemma Arterton) who lives alone and is rumored to be a witch. She is stuck tending to a boy (Lucas Bond) removed from London for safety, and the predictable result is that she softens toward him despite her initial prickliness.
However square that set-up is, the film at least creates some variation with its sunny locations and Arterton’s interest in folklore. It’s got some nice kid performances, too. But the flashbacks (to her character’s romance with a woman played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) are flimsy, their period feel unconvincing, and a plot turn in the final act pushes the limits of what might accept from a Dickens novel. Thin though the film generally is, I can’t discount the appeal of watching characters tramping along countryside pathways or perching on the edge of the cliffs—seeing movies during a pandemic lockdown instills all kinds of unexpected responses.
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.