Not Quite, Not Quite: The Films of Bill and Turner Ross

A look back at the folklore and films of the Ross brothers, who recently received the True Vision Award at this year's True/False.

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Not Quite, Not Quite: The Films of Bill and Turner Ross

In a bar that is not quite open and not quite closed, not quite real and not quite fake, one might begin to understand the folk spirit coursing through the films of Bill and Turner Ross. It’s a spirit that has quite literally flushed the brothers down the Mississippi River on a ramshackle houseboat, from their native Ohio to the debauched dream world of New Orleans, where they now call home. The Sundance-premiering Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets brought them back up river to Columbia, Missouri, for yet another True/False Film Fest (their fourth film to appear in some capacity), where they were recipients of the True Vision Award, which celebrates the mid-career achievements of noteworthy nonfiction filmmakers.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets takes place on closing night of a Vegas dive bar, The Roaring 20’s, and follows establishment regulars as they stumble through a whiskey-sodden swan song. The brothers’ return was cause for a festival retrospective that showed, along with Bloody Nose, two of their previous films: 45365 (2010), an elegy to small town Americana and a portrait of a home they had already left but had to revisit before once more moving on, and Tchoupitoulas (2012), in which three adolescents, not quite boys and not quite men, wander the sultry and boisterous nighttime streets of New Orleans. At the heart of the brothers’ work is a yearning to understand the world through the prism of depleted American mythologies; subjects search for feelings, for a purpose, as inhabitants of a world in flux, operating beyond their control.

Much like Tchoupitoulas, which takes place in one ostensible night but was shot over several months, Bloody Nose has generated discussion regarding its fictional framework: The Roaring 20’s is actually based in New Orleans and the film is led by local actor Michael Martin, otherwise filled with true barflies, collected from far and wide, playing themselves. Authentic and observed moments undfold within this framework. The brothers’ two camera system, which yin-and-yanged with Turner following a pre-planned shot list to ensure coverage of essential beats and Bill roving with camera in search of genuine besotted serendipity, best explains their commitment to mining observed emotional truths from an overarching artifice.

More interesting than parsing what’s fact and what’s fiction are the emotions they draw from these frameworks, and, additionally, how these frameworks shape the resonance of their films. It’s true their films exist in a liminal space, but as Turner explained at the Based On A True Story (BOATS) conference, put on by the Missouri School of Journalism in conjunction with True/False, “You can manufacture an experience but it doesn’t have to be a manufactured experience.”

The role of liminality in their films, for example, is better understood through an exploration of how these in-between spaces inform the pursuance of an emotional reality that occasionally necessitates such structural choices. That emotional reality consists of a perpetual sense of nostalgia, which reveals the space between American mythology and American reality, as well as the longing for the unfulfilled promises of those myths. Whether it’s sudden turmoil in the once-friendly relations of border towns Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras in Western (2015), or just a boozer’s final chance to get loaded in what he had considered the snug community of his forever-bar, these films are defined by the melancholy of such passing moments—fleeting, sentimental moments of transition, of realization that a trusted refuge is disintegrating.

The Ross brothers have often cited editing 45365 as the foundation of their film language. After several attempts at a rather conventional portrait of their hometown of Sidney, Ohio, complete with requisite and coherent storylines, they eventually turned to the moments that fell outside those storylines but had been included in an alternate timeline, titled “Things I Also Like.” These pieces, which encapsulated the feeling and speed of life but fit no pat narrative, became the building blocks of the film. As such, 45365 is best remembered by its fairground ambience—a small town as a carnival itself, each person and interaction a blurred sight from its tilt-a-whirl perspective. Life passes with the seasons, at a pace we cannot slow, and as the camera drifts to the right, along the netting behind a goalpost in the midst of a climatic homecoming football game, the Rosses cut to an empty wintertime field covered in snow and drift the camera back to the left. Here is the cyclical motion of the American small town, in which life is marked by changes that never announce themselves: Teenagers become adults and repeat their parents’ mistakes; seniors play in their last homecoming game while freshmen play in their first.

The “Things I Also Like” anecdote might describe how the Ross brothers sift through their material, but if there was ever a declaration of personality, you would find it in their 2013 film River, originally released online in eight episodes but screened at HotDocs in 2013 as a three hour feature. Bill and Turner, accompanied by third Ross brother Alex and family friend Kyle Rouse, having rigged a shed on two pontoons, ride the Mississippi River from Ohio to New Orleans, stopping in river towns along the way to fraternize and ask for fuel. Garbed in riverboat attire such as dusty 19th Century-looking vests and top hats, the crew christen their rickety vessel the Rosemarie and embark on a journey seemingly pulled from the pages of a Mark Twain novel. It is a personal quest to conjure, to live out, American mythology, which has always promised a better life, or at least a more exciting one, down the river.

Their spontaneous and convivial encounters continue to pile up, and as they do River begins to feel almost like a statement of values, a map outlining the conditions necessary to produce and capture the sort of wistful, deeply American folk moments of sadness and revelry present throughout their filmography. In this way they are proud descendants of Les Blank, but where Blank celebrated the intricacies of divergent American folk cultures whose lives were often at odds with the American mainstream, the Ross brothers document lives still bound by, though disillusioned with, the uniformity of American life.

In River, as they run their boat ashore and turn to vagabondage in the old river town of Natchez, Mississippi, the indomitable spirit of the collective does not waiver. They take on the infamous Under the Hill Natchez saloons, socializing with a flirtatious bartender before drunkenly slipping into a night of river music, a sequence of events that ends with them sleeping on an unknowing stranger’s porch and hitchhiking the next morning further down the road to New Orleans. If there was ever a sign that they had been moved by William Eggleston’s Dixie-cursed Stranded in Canton (2005), a first-person film documenting the famous photographer’s bibulous and quaalude-hazed midnight carousing of a decaying Southern aristocracy in the early ’70s, this was it.

With the brothers citing its influence, that Egglestonian seed came to blossom in Bloody Nose, in which hues of inebriation evoke a deep musical sorrow emanating from a cast of loquacious characters. Michael Martin’s monologues, impressive as they are, lack the virulent, Southern Gothic undertow of Eggleston’s skull-toting dentist, but they make up for what’s lost with their alternating doses of philosophy and bitterness. Yes, when it’s time to finally leave the bar in the sickly morning sunlight, Martin remarks under his breath that the well-wishing workers don’t even know who he really is. Such blue gloom is equally present, though less perniciously felt, when war-vet Bruce foggily sings along to the lyrics, “You better know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em.” His face tells us he is unendingly aware that he’s been dealt a losing hand.

That is not to say Bloody Nose is without its lighthearted moments; in fact, its primary tone is marked by the safety and levity of its barroom banter. Disagreements come and go, moods change with the tides, but drinks are steady poured and the smoke-filled room is pocketed with interpersonal connections in every corner: desperate, half-asleep pleas to leave alcohol behind between Martin and a younger friend; commiseration between war veterans; stoned kids in the parking lot discussing plutonium; even the antagonist of several patrons reads a tender goodbye toast to the bar, now a haven in its crescent form waning from their lives.

Like the rest of their films, River is defined by its movement, a journey from one home to the next. It is the sort of adventure people often wish they could hold onto forever but will, like all other experiences, slip into the deep recesses of memory leaving behind only feelings and images stripped of context. Even Contemporary Color (2016), which documents a live color guard show hosted by David Byrne, is about preserving those fleeting moments. High schoolers from all over suburbia stream into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the chance to perform alongside famous musicians in a world class venue. In many ways it is the Rosses’ most abstract film, dedicated to capturing the raw physical movements of the most liminal of spaces: a performance stage. It is also, of course, in other ways their most direct film. Live events are what they are, but they also contain an in-the-moment quality that renders them immediately present, where past and future cease to exist. Athletes and performers live for such moments, between preparation and recovery, where for a brief time they are able to transcend their daily lives. The Ross brothers emphasize this transient state of performance, untethered from a grounded reality by means of hypnotic slow dissolves and superimpositions of musicians over the twirls and contortions of the color guard.

The fictional frameworks, it seems, come and go as necessary. 45365, Western and Contemporary Color provided their own liminal spaces, and the fact that they were without structural time constraints eliminated the need for increased levels of contrivance. But in order to convey, say, the revelatory ephemera of a youthful excursion, such as a boy’s rapt side-stage sight of a gyrating burlesque dancer, it was necessary to set up a skeletal structure under which an assortment of true documentary moments could best resonate in their emotional clarity. The essence of reality, in the cases of Tchoupitoulas and Bloody Nose, is still very much erected with blocks of documentary form. Whatever there is to be said about the condensed timeline of Tchoupitoulas, few documentaries can point to a moment as alive as those three boys sneaking aboard an abandoned riverboat, tiptoeing in dilapidated darkness beneath the canopy of a still-lit spherical ballroom chandelier, spurred by that inexperienced blend of fear and preening courage. As the boys move to the few illuminated areas like flies to a lantern, the camera feels at their beck and call when the youngest jokes of seeing a homeless man in an empty room, at once protective in its hurried movements and reflective of their own trepidation. The camera is animated by the possibility that childlike mischief could quickly transform into real danger.

Nostalgia is often a double-edged sword in that its yearning for some sort of past can tend to simplify it, and the Ross brothers’ films would perhaps be at risk of blunting the edges of history if their work didn’t also reverberate with the boundless humanity of their subjects. Western’s Martín Wall growling to his daughter’s delight in the comfort of their kitchen and Bruce’s tearful exit of the Roaring 20’s in Bloody Nose exist on the same continuum of care. Beneath American lore—saddled with myths of romantic river pirates, cowboys, small town fairgrounds and cities of endless pleasure—are those in front of the Ross brothers’ camera who see a world both magical and disappointing. The nostalgia in these films does not pine for a world that was, but rather laments one that has never quite existed the way we’ve wanted it to. Bittersweet poetry, though, persists in the act of wishing.

Daniel Christian is a writer and filmmaker based in Columbia, Missouri. In addition to Paste, he has written for Filmmaker Magazine and No Film School. You can follow him on Twitter.

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