Reviews Short Narrative

The Service (2020) – 1.5 stars

Director: Austin Bowen  

Writers: Austin Bowen & Joseph Uhl

Cast: Joseph Uhl, Austen Bowen, Colin Alan Nease

Running time:  39mins

Since the pandemic struck, one of the hot media debates has been over future patterns of work. The media, as part of the knowledge economy, has pretty much seamlessly migrated to the zoom universe of working from home – while the workers in the ‘real’ economy of food production, logistics and essential services have had little choice but to put themselves at risk from the virus. All the time, many of the ‘real’ workers have been facing the dangers for a wage that the majority of those in the knowledge economy would not get out of bed for.

In the US, over the last year, the most hazardous jobs were in food processing and public transport – not renowned for stellar remuneration. Now, as we emerge blinking into the sunlight, mainstream economists warn of wage inflation – essential workers somehow seem less essential. The nature of work is at the core of Austin Bowen’s The Service, an idiosyncratic and somewhat repulsive short feature, set and filmed in contemporary Washington State, USA.

Bowen edited, directed, and takes a lead part in the film as Karl, while the script is credited to Bowen and Joseph Uhl, who occupies the other lead role of Kelly. The central conceit of the film, and it is an interesting one, is ‘let us find a job that it so spectacularly repugnant that, as filmmakers, we can mine it for every lode of dark humour and discombobulate the audience by contrasting the horrors on screen with the workers’ commitment to process, routine and getting the job done.’ The job Bowen opts for is dismembering and disposing of dead bodies. For whom and why the protagonists are performing this particular task – and who is paying their wages – is left unexplained. Fine by me, this is experimental film not a police procedural.

We see Kelly and Karl as two operatives on a call-out. They visit an apartment where a man has been (presumably) murdered – the corpse is lying in a pool of blood. Kelly fixes something to eat whilst Karl prepares to cut up the body, so they can transport it in the handy holdalls they have brought along. In an especially rebarbative scene, they debate whether to use a power saw or a hand saw, before we see them performing their grisly task.

For your reviewer, the stand-out scenes were the interiors and the way the camera played on intimate details of the décor of the houses containing the corpses – the Muhammad Ali poster and a photo of someone who appeared to be Pete Townsend, a rock musician with, let us say, a frayed reputation in the UK. Can we learn anything about a dead person by what they chose to surround themselves in life? In this respect, the interiors scenes evoked for me the work of Frances Glessner Lee, a sculptor and forensic scientist, and her dioramas of true crime scenes – The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death.

Returning to the relationship of the two leads, Kelly is the alpha male, seen it all before, leader. Karl is a bit of a wimp – the running joke is that he still throws up after he has dismembered a human corpse. Job done, body disposed of, we see Karl in downtime, meeting his friend (played by Colin Alan Nease) for a drink and some skateboarding – they are both pretty good skateboarders.

The director then treats us to a snappily edited sequence where the strangeness of the nature of Karl’s work is explicitly contrasted with the banal routine of his life. We are given repeated shots of an alarm clock hitting 5:00am, Karl going to a payphone to phone Kelly about work, followed by a series of shots of new corpses, followed, inevitably, by a series of frames of Karl vomiting, the running joke as motif. The fact that Karl is having to be woken consistently at 5:00am seemed to me somewhat weird as I would have thought their line of work would have been demand-driven and quite flexible timewise – but let’s not go there.

Hanging a verbose script over a narrative arc based around violence is a familiar, Tarantinesque technique, but here we come to a fundamental problem with The Service. The effectiveness of this kind of storytelling hinges on compelling delivery – and Bowen, like Tarantino himself, appears to be no Christoph Waltz. It is hard to say on the basis of one performance who is or is not a bad actor – especially when they are directing themselves – but Bowen puts in a seriously bad performance here.

He interprets Karl as a hysteric and the range is from hysteric to extremely hysteric and back again. So much so, and because his character is on screen for almost the entire film, this poses a real problem – the whole enterprise appears ridiculous. I would hazard a guess that the only viewers who might make it through the entire 39 minutes would be the friends and family of the director.

While this aspect of the film renders The Service almost unwatchable, though, there are some good things to take away. Uhl somewhat redeems the cast by putting in a solid and believable performance as Kelly. Meanwhile, the soundtrack, cinematography and editing are generally well crafted.

Bowen and his collaborators are musicians who perform under a variety of monikers, including the Dirty Whities (google its etymology – it’s as repulsive as it sounds). It shows. The soundtrack is prominent, insistent and is genuinely powerful; filled with admittedly rather good music. It brought to mind another black and white film with an overweening musical score, integral to the whole meaning of the movie – Jarmusch’s Dead Man.

The Service is filmed in black and white which certainly gives it a noir feel. The camera work, credited to a group of people, was well achieved. Bowen did a fine job as editor. I enjoyed the scenes when Karl and Kelly are driving to the assignments – the black and white footage efficiently portrays the sheer horrors of suburban Washington State.

Unfortunately, all these positives are further undermined by the obnoxious ideology it unblinkingly serves – and I could have done without the Western fascistic riff that you are not a real Cop or Robber until you have killed someone. Meanwhile, the turn that is inserted at the end would hardly pass muster in a kindergarten creative writing class.

With all this being said, Bowen and his collaborators have shown that they have an eye for cinema, an understanding of how to make movies, and how to weld together the twin media of film and music. There are many things on display here which would colour me interested in their next project; although that is on the condition that under no account should Bowen be let anywhere near the front end of camera. If he feels the urge to act on set, he would be better employed jumping on a skateboard and further demonstrating those skills.

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