What I’ve Been Watching (March and April): “Mr. Robot”

A Review:

Mr. Robot

What makes compelling television? One critical component—at least for dramatic series—is a lively ensemble cast with a set of compelling characters whose different backgrounds, motivations, aspirations, and flaws writers can explore (either in groups or individually) over a course of episodes. Twists and turns are also important, as is placing characters at genuine risk.

Mr. Robot, which was created by Sam Esmail and airs on the USA Network, meets these characteristics. Like the once-popular Lost, it makes significant use of non-linear narrative and story telling, filling in significant swaths of back story only as it becomes absolutely necessary for the dramatic needs of particular episodes and for the first season as a whole. Non-linear story telling requires more investment from a viewer or reader (in my opinion), but it also helps “launch” an episode or an entire series more quickly than if writers or show runners first get bogged down in significant amounts of exposition. Furthermore, non-linear story telling allows writers to explore subtly complex aspects of character, situation, plot, and even ethics and social realities once viewers feel invested in the characters and their contexts.

Dexter also used non-linear story telling to great effect, especially in its first two seasons. Its writers also made great use of twists and sudden reveals, which were often anticipated (in hindsight) by the recurring backtracking and non-linear (but dramatically motivated) additions of information.

Indeed, Mr. Robot’s main character, Elliot Alderson (played brilliantly by Rami Malek — and compare his performance here to his equally haunting portrayal of Snafu Shelton in The Pacific), reminds me a great deal of Dexter Morgan. Both are emotionally damaged and socially maladjusted—but nevertheless sympathetic—vigilantes who use their superior knowledge in a particular “technical area” to fight back against injustices. Both also create a private world that is constructed via voice-over narrative to which viewers have privileged access. Mr. Robot takes this a step further, however. While Dexter seems to be speaking to us (note his knowing glance toward us, the viewers, at the end of Dexter‘s opening title sequence), Elliot addresses us directly and knowingly so. What is peculiar is that while he speaks to us, Elliot seems to think that we are the (his) imaginary characters.

In retrospect, Elliot’s belief that we are imaginary characters in his head should cue viewers into just how ridiculously complex the representation of Elliot’s understanding of reality actually is—and how foolishly we take for granted the fiction that the camera never lies in our audiovisual media—given the most significant reveals of final episodes of the first season of this very fine series.

Mr. Robot also harkens back to Lost and Dexter, among other recent and current television programs that I have enjoyed (others include Deadwood and the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), in its unrelentingly pessimistic view of human nature… or at least of human society. While this makes for compelling story telling, one has to wonder: Is this really all we want to (re)present on contemporary television, even among us adults? Does this really capture what we actually believe about our condition and our contexts? Do we really accept that our economics, our social relationships, our politics, and our technologies are all unseemly and spirit-crushing? Is it simply naïve to think that art—and I do believe film and even television can rise to that level—should be, or at least may be, celebratory and edifying, at least sometimes?

Let me be clear: I rarely reject a television show or movie simply because it is gritty or challenges simplistic ethical platitudes. On the contrary, ethical complexity is a hallmark I deeply appreciate. Furthermore, I enjoy different  audiovisual text for many reasons besides plot and “surface” meaning. Character and character development, pithy and/or witty dialogue, the successful deployment of varied narrative devices, music and / as narrative, and visual density are all aspects of audiovisual media that I love. But gritty and challenging alone are also not enough.

Here’s the bottom line for me: if the gritty trend in television drama–especially on cable channels–suggest that there’s really no hope for change (personal or social), then why point out what must be by default glaringly obvious to every thoughtful viewer? Or is it that compelling, authentic, complicated and complicating–but ultimately hopeful–drama is simply too difficult to create (and market) in our society today?

Stan Pelkey

My Chamber Music Recital

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On Sunday, April 17, 2016, I presented a recital of some of my original chamber music at the First Presbyterian Church in Thomasville, Georgia. I was joined on the program by five very talented graduate students from the College of Music at Florida State University. Among the works presented were pieces for wind trio, quartet, and quintet, and solo piano.

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In addition to performing a short piano meditation on the Lutheran hymn “Kirken Den Er Et Gammelt Hus” (“Built on a Rock”), which I composed while working as Minister of Music for St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Pittsford, New York, in 1997, I also premiered a large piano solo work, “Six Lyrical Pieces” (2016).

 

I also asked members of the audience to share their perceptions of the meaning of those movements — which I explained followed a broad “program” about family, childhood, parents, conflict, and resolution — during the reception following the recital. I will post transcriptions of audience members’ comments soon.

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Special thanks to the musicians who participated in the recital, and to my colleague, Michael Strickland, who recorded the event.

Please enjoy the following excerpts from the concert.

All selections composed by Stanley C. Pelkey.

“Meditation on ‘Built on a Rock'” (1997)

“Prelude” from Six Lyrical Pieces (2016)

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“Salutation and Variations for Wind Quartet” (2016)

{original theme by Stan Pelkey}

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“Interlude for Wind Quintet” (2008 / 2016)

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Wind Quintet No. 1, mov. 1 (1997)

“Fugue” from Suite for Wind Quartet (2009; 2016)

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What I’ve Been Reading: A Review of “Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema”

Review:

David Neumeyer, Meaning and Interpretation of Music in Cinema (Indiana University Press, 2015).
David Neumeyer (University of Texas at Austin) expands his significant contribution to film music studies with this magisterial volume, which is in three parts. In the first part, Neumeyer deploys a series of close readings of numerous film scenes to demonstrate that the sound track as a whole—dialogue, music, and sound effects (99)—is the proper object of study. This commitment is grounded in “vococentrism”: human voices dominate the sound track, just as human faces do the image track (100) (Vococentrism is obvious whenever music gives way to dialogue; without the human voice and human agency, neither film image nor film music would make sense.) Music supports film narrative, but editing and mixing, synchronization of sound and image, acoustical fidelity, and excessive expressiveness shape how one hears and interprets film music.
In part 2, Neumeyer crafts a series of close readings of Casablanca that utilize concepts outlined in part 1; the closing pages, in which Neumeyer considers sound effects, dialogue, and music in the final minutes of Casablanca, provide an outstanding example of what his consistent attention to the sound track as a whole can reveal about incredibly nuanced meaning in film.
Finally, in part 3, Neumeyer explores sound tracks that include J. S. Bach’s C Major Prelude from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, or the prelude from his Cello Suite in G Major. He considers ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral embodied in these excerpts. Here he addresses the ideas of topic and troping while exploring how these musical excerpts embody a range of ideas about the domestic, nostalgia, and the pastoral. When characters on screen perform these pieces by Bach, simplistic oppositions between the diegetic and nondiegetic and empathetic and nonempathetic break down.
Throughout the book, Neumeyer summarizes and draws upon a vast body of critical work in film and film music studies and offers ways to understand scholars’ differently nuanced ideas about film and film music as a cohesive body of analytical and critical approaches. Numerous photographic stills and notated musical examples reinforce his arguments.
Highly recommended.

 

Review by Stan Pelkey (April 6, 2016)