Sunday 29 May 2016

The Human Cost of Policing and Security Work in the Novels of Robert Wilson

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is posted on this site because the novels of Robert Wilson addresses the psychic cost of crossing a moral boundary.

Novelist Robert Wilson. (Photo: Gabriel Pecot)

“He felt empty and immensely distressed. Police work did this to him. When it was all over, there was nothing left but disappointment. Mystery gone, quest terminated. All that was left was an overwhelming sense of loss and pointlessness.” 
 Robert Wilson, The Ignorance of Blood, 2009.
“You can’t kill someone, even if it is in the heat of the battle and remain the same. Once you’ve felt that kind of savagery and done that kind of damage to a fellow human you can never re-enter the world of men. You are always going to be separate, an outsider. Some can live with it, others can’t.” 
 Robert Wilson, You Will Never Find Me, 2015. 
I suspect that most readers of Critics at Large are not familiar with the British novelist, Robert Wilson. My goal in this review is to change that condition by sharing my own excitement for this unique voice. Wilson occupies a space somewhere between writing police procedurals and thrillers. In his early novels written in the first person, he sounds a little like Raymond Chandler but as he progresses, the best work of Alan Furst comes to mind. Whether his novels are set in West Africa (the Bruce Medway quartet), in Portugal (where he lived for a time), in Seville Spain, or in London UK, Wilson writes with authority, offering both shrewd political and social commentary and astute psychological insights. Moreover, he writes well  spicing his narratives with lovely images that regularly invite a re-read.

Sunday 15 May 2016

Truth and Consequences: Reflections on the Ghomeshi Scandal

This piece that originally appeared in Critics at Large is a followup to my review of The Hunting Ground. It examines the transgressive behaviour of a former broadcast celebrity, if not in a legal sense, certainly in a moral and ethical sense. Perhaps if the conversation on sexual assault and harassment are advanced and more people become informed along with a greater sensitivity to the victims is achieved, the trial and subsequent peace bond agreed upon may have some beneficial outcome. 

Jian Ghomeshi (right) exiting a Toronto courthouse with his lawyer Marie Henein. (Photo: Frank Gunn/AP)

As I was writing about Kirby Dick’s disturbing, albeit flawed documentary, The Hunting Ground, that profiles several women who were victims of sexual assault on American campuses and the apparent official indifference they confronted, it was hard not to think about the outcome of the Jian Ghomeshi trial and the firestorm that it created here in Canada. As most people know, that trial was a high profile case of a former marquee radio host for the CBC that publicly terminated him in the midst of several allegations of disreputable behaviour towards a number of women. The juxtaposition of the American film and the Canadian trial is unsettling because my responses are complicated. Initially, I experienced an almost visceral antipathy toward the male perpetrators. It was easy to feel a sense of outrage about what happened to these young women in The Hunting Ground and the suffering they endured, exacerbated by the blaming-the-victim rhetoric and hostile responses they encountered, even though I believe that the filmmakers could have done a better job at vetting at least one of the women. At the outset of the Ghomeshi trial, I was quite prepared to jump on the media bandwagon and consign the accused to Dante’s Second Circle of Hell for “carnal malefactors.” My feelings of antipathy toward Ghomeshi deepened after reading a powerful online account by Jessica Knoll, who recounts her own gang rape that inspired her novel, Luckiest Girl Alive, and the subsequent vicious treatment she received by her peers and at least one teacher who regarded her as a slut. That essay is of course totally unrelated to the Ghomeshi trial but it did contribute to my mindset that the justice system in general does not always serve women who are the victims of sexual assault.

Wednesday 4 May 2016

Advocacy and Accuracy: Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground

The following review originally appeared in Critics at Large April 30 and I am reproducing on this website because the subject matter about sexual assault on American campuses and apparent official indifference is about transgression, a component of the Gothic. The review also addresses the transgression of the filmmakers whom I suggest are not entirely accurate in their advocacy documentary.

A scene from Kirby Dick's The Hunting Ground.

“Despite significant progress over the last few years, too many woman and men on and off college campuses are still victims of sexual abuse.” 
– Vice President Joe Biden at the 2015 Academy Awards 
The persuasive power of advocacy journalism and documentaries is undeniable, but they have their detractors in large part because they offer viewers only one perspective or one that is not even-handed. Think of the conversation around An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 Oscar-winning film about Al Gore's efforts to explain global warning. Yet Guggenheim’s recent foray, He Named Me Malala, is an inspiring portrait of the Pakistani teenager and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, Malala Yousafzai, which I expect has few detractors, at least in the West. Or consider the highly popular Making of a Murderer, the Netflix series that revisits and forcibly challenges a decade-old murder conviction. This documentary series, reminiscent of Errol Morris’ 1988 pioneering The Thin Blue Line has elicited viewers’ visceral outrage about the original conviction. Although the filmmakers have been generally praised for their muckraking efforts, a few critics, notably Kathryn Schulz writing in The New Yorker, persuasively provides a counter argument.

A similar controversy has been stirred by the incendiary The Hunting Ground about the prevalence of sexual assault on American campuses and the apparent indifference of university administrators in addressing the complaints of the victims. Writer-director Kirby Dick and producer Amy Ziering, who previously collaborated on the documentaries Outrage, about homophobia among American political elites, and The Invisible War, about sexual assault and its cover up in the military, do provide a disturbing picture of a serious problem. If seen in isolation from the critical responses to the film, most viewers likely will be enraged by what has been occurring on American campuses as portrayed in The Hunting Ground.