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Rob Z

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About Rob Z

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  • Occupation
    Graduate student and literature/composition teacher, University of Oregon
  • Favorite movies
    Ordet, Chariots of Fire, The Tree of Life, Blade Runner, Tarkovsky
  • Favorite music
    classical, Stevie Wonder, U2, Over the Rhine, Sufjan Stevens, Patty Griffin, RAIJ
  • Favorite creative writing
    Wendell Berry, Marilynne Robinson, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, Dickinson, religious and environmental poetry

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  1. I intended to watch this on Kanopy during December, but my institution restricted access to Kanopy over our winter break in order to save on costs. I really loved this film. So glad it was recommended. My feeling of watching it was…weird, but in a way that matches the weirdness of the action and subject matter. I thought the theological discussions about the problem of evil, sacrifice, meaninglessness and goodness, God’s existence, etc. to be handled really well, so seamlessly integrated into the rest of the film. I took the thrust of the juxtaposition of theology and insanity to be staging that perceiving a world without God/meaning—whether in war, the emptiness of space, or how those things metaphorically manifest in the human heart—is a form of psychosis, a detachment from reality. I guess I didn’t find the inmates’ obsessive “roles” as redemptive as I think Anders did. Interesting that Cutshaw wears a Fordham jacket and has a St. Christopher medallion, suggesting he’s not just any atheist but has rejected the Catholicism that Kane holds dear. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS One thing I’m puzzling over in the film is the discussion of Hamlet’s madness, which Anders mentions in his review, and Ken also referred to. It’s not just faking vs. truly mad. The third option is unconsciously acting crazy as a self-defense mechanism from going truly over the edge psychotic. The film suggests this is the men’s unconscious state of mind/behavior. (Though it’s brilliantly confused right away by Reno’s talking with the dog, which suggests he’s truly nuts, followed by Cutshaw and Reno’s exchange which suggests they’re faking.) I’m unsure how this maps on to the film’s posture toward faith. The world is crazy, so... turn to God? There’s “method in the madness” of truly believing in God? Regarding the twists, I didn’t see coming either Kane’s true identity, or Fell and Kane’s true relationship. I found both revelations really affecting, narratively and emotionally, and both were handled really well in the film, but my second, reflective reaction to both was that neither was particularly plausible (even accepting the premise, would the Marines let one brother treat/experiment on his brother? And wouldn’t they have known Gilman (the one who blows Kane’s identity) would have known who he really was? He didn’t act like the other inmates.) But those are quibbles with an otherwise masterful plot. I do have two more substantive concerns with the film, and I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts: First, I thought the film really blew it in the final moments where Cutshaw finds the medallion in the car, suggesting a sign that Kane is contacting him from the afterlife. It seemed like a real cop-out that indulged in the kind of magical thinking that I find toxic to true faith. I was hoping some “sign” like wouldn’t happen in this way, and I’m not someone who needs cinematic miracles to be sufficiently ambiguous before I can suspend disbelief. This really felt like Blatty hitting the viewer on the nose, which I didn’t feel throughout the entire film, and it’s especially frustrating considering how easy I can imagine this being handled much better. How did others react to this? I did suspect that Kane would somehow sacrifice himself for Cutshaw or all the men. I thought the film was a tad heavy handed in setting up Kane to be a sacrificial Christ-figure. (Though I mostly agree with Anders that the film “lacks subtlety” but has a “light touch” and avoids becoming overblown or overdetermined.) Really only the “he was a lamb” line was a little too much, especially after the juxtaposition of Kane with crosses, the word “Christ,” and other pervasive Christological symbolism. This is just as foregrounded in the book. In Kane’s dream of seeing the astronaut on the moon who sees Christ on the cross, it is his own face on Christ’s body, and that is indeed Stacy Keach in the film. I feel a lot of tension around Kane’s suicide. I guess I am wary of lauding “principled” or "heroic" suicide, done for a reason of the larger good rather than out of despair, but still self-inflicted. Like when monks or ministers self-immolate to protest social injustice. And there are plenty of examples in film of characters heroically killing themselves because they know they are a danger to others, which I’m also wary of. Then there are kamikaze and suicide missions, which are often portrayed as heroic, but I’m again wary of that. This doesn’t include those narratives where someone does something knowing it will cause their death because the thing that kills them would kill someone else otherwise, and these kinds of sacrifice are given as examples in the film. (That kind of altruism is one of those pieces of “evidence” for God that can’t be otherwise explained.) And then there are noble examples of someone simply doing the right thing because they know they must, even knowing they’ll be killed for it, a kind of martyrdom. So: Sacrifice=good. Martyrdom=good. Principled/herioc suicide=ambiguous, grey area, problematic. Despairing suicide=bad (though I’m certainly not of the “blame the individual/they’re going to hell” persuasion). Where does Kane’s suicide fit into this spectrum? It works as a curative for Cutshaw (and in the book most of the other men are “cured” too, and it inspires Major Groper later to himself make a heroic sacrifice in combat.) I guess I feel tension around this because he’s set up as both a cold killer as well as a Christ figure, and there is a lot of tension over how they overlap or don't. Once the (extremely tense) bar scene was going along, I expected Kane to somehow die there in a way that somehow saved Cutshaw, but maybe that would have been too easy and passive, not an affirmative enough of a sacrifice. (That was actually an alternate ending of the film.) I was really on the edge of my seat to see if he’d snap or sacrifice. He sort of did both, but in a way that felt like violence and/or self-violence rather than sacrifice was the answer, which is not Christlike. It’s really made me think, can I accept this as a “good” suicide? If one is going to die (either of the wounds he received in the bar fight or by being put away for being a crazy killer) in a way that won’t heal the inmates, is it better to do something wrong (commit another killing, while in his right mind) that will? This seems comparable to the paradox of interpreting Hamlet’s madness, though I haven’t thought that through. The end also reminded me of the end of Fight Club (Spoiler) where a principled suicide is intended to "kill the killer" inside, and the shock of the attempt is curative. But unlike The Ninth Configuration, that ending is unredemptive and incoherent in trying to have the suicide both ways. The Good Shepherd passage from John is read at the mass in the film. Can a Christ-figure good shepherd like Kane “lay down” his life for the sheep by “taking” his own life instead of by “giving up” his life to be taken by others? Or can it be both simultaneously?
  2. Rob Z

    2019 List Preliminary Discussion

    Not saying that I'm there already! Obviously these categories are fluid. But I'm a dad now, and I have a "career" job for the first time in my life, so my life stage is starting to feel different, call it what you will. And I had a minor "procedure" last year!
  3. Rob Z

    2019 List Preliminary Discussion

    I really like "Growing Older" as a theme, as long as the emphasis is on GROWING oldER, rather than on just on OLD. I'm 34, approaching middle age, and I'd love a list that could explore that reality along with the reality of my parents, approaching elderhood, something that is also very much on my mind. This definitely feels like more of an A&F take on the topic of aging. I agree that coming-of-age films and the bildungsroman more generally is perhaps too conventional of a topic to take up, although I think it could be just as valuable for A&F to take a more "mature" look at at a conventional genre. Along these lines, I remember "Crime and Punishment" being a previously proposed topic that felt appropriate and timely, especially if it were more broadly construed as a list of films about justice. This is in part for reasons that concur with Andrew's suggestion, as some important groups in our society seem hellbent on moving away from a robust presence of justice and I find that those who are most vocal about justice often present it in a rather reductive way. But I'm all in for Growing Older.
  4. Rob Z

    2019 List Preliminary Discussion

    1. I agree that it’s best not to rush the process of a Top 100, even as it would be good to start/keep the ball rolling soon. Even if we start the process soon (with no Top 25), the process could take a full year and be published early in 2020. Or maybe that’s too long a timeline? 3. I agree with Joel that hosting the list at artsandfaith.com makes the most sense. (If I remember, the Ecumenical Jury list was published on the Image website. Where will it be now?) A companion book based on the list feels like something to take up once the list is further along—it doesn’t feel integral to the list-making itself. 4. I don’t think this is something to be worried about. As long as there is a facilitator and the list-making is happening, I think enough people will participate to make it worthwhile. I would honestly be surprised if the list didn’t change a lot from 2011. A&F made five Top 100 lists in the 8 years from 2004-2011. The makeup of the list changed a lot over the course of those years and iterations. And now it’s been 8 years from that last list. New participants, new films, and new processes to determine the list will surely make a difference. 5. It looks like for the 2011 list (well before I became a participant, but I’ve read the archived discussion), only the previous Top 100 was grandfathered into being automatically nominated. With grandfathering, as Evan said, people could still advocate for films on the current list. I think it would be fine if we nominated all new films from scratch, too. I have a recommendation for revamping the voting process to make the list’s ranking more meaningful. I’ll make another post on this soon. 6. Doesn’t matter, though I’d be more invested in a Top 100. I do like the idea of another Top 25 this year and a new Top 100 for 2020, but it feels like there is more momentum for a Top 100. (Completing the Top 25 by the end of the summer seems workable. Then the nomination process for the 2020 list could begin in earnest in the late summer or fall. And we could keep discussing issues around a Top 100 in this thread until then. It’s not like it would have to be paused completely.) Additional items. I like the idea of calling this list “Spiritually Significant” or something like that. It says something about the films on the list directly, rather than just that it’s the top films of this group of people who are broadly interested in the intersection of arts & faith. And “spiritual” in this context can and should be construed as multi-valently as possible to include everyone who participates on this board. “Film” seems the appropriate place on the board for these discussions to me.
  5. Rob Z

    Exploring the List 2011

    Thanks, the films on the list were worth it!
  6. Rob Z

    Exploring the List 2011

    I just finished making my way through all the films in the 2011 Top 100! The last one I saw was After Life—what a neat and quirky film to end on. Here are a couple thoughts I had reflecting on the list as a whole. There is a lot of overlap in the list with the 2012 Sight and Sound list, especially toward the top of that list. Seven films in the top 10 of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll are on the 2011 Top 100 list. Eighteen of the top S&S 47 are on the A&F list and 27 overlap from the S&S top 100 and the A&F top 100. That’s the Critics List. From the Directors List, 6 of the top 10 are in the A&F Top 100, 15 of the top 36, 20 of the top 43, and 27 of the top 100. Lots of great films on both lists, obviously! I’m glad the lists don’t overlap any more than they do. Compared with other lists of top films, there’s a lot more room on the A&F list for quirky films or ones that are great films that deal with issues of morality, faith, or religion but aren’t necessarily consensus masterpieces in film history. I like that the list is of great “Arts AND Faith” films, not “arts and/or faith” or just great artistic films appreciated by people who also appreciate faith. I was most grateful for the films on the list that addressed issues of faith directly. There is a lot of death in the Top 100 films. Just going down the list from memory, I count 67 films in which someone dies, and often the death is of a central character or serves as a central plot driver. Plus there are many more films in which no one actually dies in the film but where the death of someone important to the film’s story died before the actual narrative of the film begins, for instance . Death by falling from a high place was something that at least 4 films featured prominently. Anyway, I appreciated how thoroughly these films are invested in exploring the deepest questions around life, which often involve thinking about death and its consequences. Having made it through the 2011 Top 100, I am eager to participate on an update to the Top 100!
  7. I'm in the "if you build it" camp for sure. Everything Ken and others have outlined sounds great. Top 100. Book. Prospective timeline. Let's play ball. But time of year does make a difference. I am much busier during the school year. Summer and December-January are the times I am able to watch more films and do more on the board than just check in from time to time to see what more active members are up to (like discussing doing lists), but not actively chiming in. Not that that should influence anything--just affirming Ken's thought. I concur that advance notice about starting the process if helpful, but getting the process started sooner rather than later is probably a good idea. I will eagerly participate and contribute to the extent I can. And I'd be very excited to contribute something to a book.
  8. Rob Z

    Suggest a Film to be Featured

    I think it's been about a year since the last Film Club film, and I'm definitely up for another discussion. Yes, I think it makes it easier to have a discussion in a separate thread for a while when a film is featured, but it definitely makes sense not to have separate threads for a single film. Perhaps they could be merged into the main one with a note that there was a featured discussion during a particular month. I believe there are some film club films there the only thread that exists is the featured discussion one. I'm intrigued! Let's watch this one at some point.
  9. Rob Z


    It really did seem like Carlsen was playing for draws the whole match since he knew he was a much stronger rapid player and could win in the tie break. Sometimes he had to grind out a draw when he was weaker against the nearly as good Caruana, but when he was in a stronger position he didn't go for the win. The format for world championships has been the same since FIDE regained its position as organizer of the matches 10 or so years ago: a match of 12 classical games, then for tie breaks a match of 4 rapid games, and then 5 2-game matches of blitz, and then an armageddon game. Before that the matches were longer and if tied the previous champion retained the title. I too dislike this new format, but I do think that there should be a mechanism for a decisive result in case of a tie. 12 games isn't enough. One suggestion I read is to have the tiebreak before the classical match, which would disincentivize draws for one player at least. I'm not sure why they don't play a series of 2-game classical matches until there's a winner. Probably because of venue booking, I guess, and players would just play for draws. Rapid chess is different than classical, but it's still fundamentally the same game. (Heck, most chess games I play aren't even as long as a rapid game, but for entirely different reasons!) I think it's kind of like rugby 7s is basically rugby with fewer players and less time. I don't think the world championship has ever gone to blitz games. If it did, or especially if it went to an armageddon game, I'd view the result with skepticism. The problem with penalties in soccer (or away goals) as a tiebreaker is that it's fundamentally different, even if it includes an aspect of the game. Whether that is better than, say, playing sudden death periods of extra time without a goalkeeper is debatable. Still, at least the process doesn't include the arbitrariness of college football championships, a continuing problem that makes the national champ title mean little more than one of the best teams that beat another good team. But I'd amend the system so that it would never have to go to blitz or armageddon games, which unlike rapid games are really really fast, more antithetical to the depth of a classical chess game.
  10. Rob Z


    That is indeed a great chess commentary site, Ken. Great commentary on the world championship games as well. Just the right combination of chess knowledge and accessibility. For the world championship, which is about the extent of my actually paying attention to chess as it happens, in the past I've enjoyed having the chess24.com commentary on while I've done other work. (Not this year, though--too busy.) When games are 4+ hours and moves can take 20 minutes, a video recap is plenty. I mostly enjoy the 538 coverage, great for a chess novice like myself. https://fivethirtyeight.com/tag/chess/
  11. Rob Z

    The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

    Peter, you articulate my mind on these decisions in the films better than I could. That's a great insight about the shape/movement of the narrative as it moves forward, too. Haha! Good point! My daughter is two, so Mister Rogers episodes are all we've given her so far!
  12. Rob Z

    The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

    Yes, there is much that is silly and distracting in these films that I wish had been left out. But I still think that the films hold up overall. They just do so much so well—the action, the charm, the detail, as mentioned. I rewatched the LotR trilogy around the years that The Hobbit: An Unconscionable Jumble, The Desolation of Special Effects, The Battle of Five Hours Too Long films came out, and my reaction was more so that Jackson had showed restraint (!) with the original trilogy by reigning in the excesses of his filmmaking style, which he used well in service of the stories. The reverse was more true in the Hobbit films, which along with the decision to present them as prequels turned the films into bloated fan fic drek. I was a devotee of the LotR books (call me a nerd if you like) in high school when the original trilogy came out. I had many, many criticisms of the film when they came out, but I’ve always been able to compartmentalize them. It boils down, for me, to the fact that they are still pretty good adaptations of books that I love. The same cannot be said of the Hobbit films. I thought that Return was the weakest, in part because it’s the worst adaptation, and Fellowship the best on its own merits, and it makes by far the fewest blunders in character development and story plotting, but also because it’s easily the best adaptation (also the easiest to adapt). Treebeard, check, whose wisdom and patience is traded for some phony feel-good Hobbit heroics. Faramir, check, whose understanding, goodness, gentleness, and self-control are traded for thinner, inferior characterization and a pointless diversion that eats up screen time. These indeed are hard to forgive. The third? My takeaway from my most recent rewatch was simply how long they are! Since becoming a parent, I hardly have the time/energy for a 2 hour film in one sitting. And the camera movements felt kind of dated. My film tastes have matured even since then though, so on next rewatch, who knows? Probably won’t be for a long time. The Filmspotting podcast recently did a good and, yes, largely positive retrospective of the LotR trilogy, including a Top 5 scenes. https://www.filmspotting.net/episodes-archive/2018/5/17/681-lord-of-the-rings
  13. Babette's Feast is the film that came to me first, very much about restoration (spiritual and vocational) while in a place of exile. The Chosen is a film I remember being about relational exile, and feeling exiled from pursuing one's dreams, but it's been a really long time since I've seen it. Cast Away was another in the survivalist genre that came to mind, but that and all those other films are rather thin. That is, whatever their merits as films none of them really warrant the weight of the word "exile" and all it signifies. Life of Pi is another, but again, not really an exile per se. Also a lot of hero films involve a kind of exile from a community and then a restoration via a return that saves the community (or something like that). Like The Lion King. I'm not recommending that, just thinking out loud!
  14. Rob Z

    First Reformed

    I can’t fault anyone for not seeing the film as hopeful, although I ultimately do. It’s a bleak film, not optimistic in the least about the state of religion, politics, economics, environmental issues, etc. I have a cousin who grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, who has struggled a lot with Christian faith in its American form particularly, who walks the environmentalist walk more fully than anyone I know personally—a lot in common with Toller I talked the film up to him, but because he’s at a kind of down/rebuilding place in his life (like Toller) couldn’t really recommend it because of the bleakness of the film. But I think there’s hope, and my takeaway is the same as Andrew’s, including regarding the relationship matters. As to Toller’s treatment of Esther the choir director, the first time I saw the film, I was kind of jolted at his behavior. But on second viewing, if made more sense, He also is distancing himself from those who care about him (including Mary), because he figures . When he says, Anyway, I thought those scenes were still “slice of life,” even if they were more dramatic. As to Toller and Mary’s relationship, I don’t think it’s warranted to interpret it as , nor does calling it that do justice to the actual content and arc of their relationship. Does it stray into the inappropriate? sure—especially if a strict realism is assumed. It could have gone further in that direction, but I don’t see it developing into something immoral. I think the film is almost at pains to show that the growing relationship of Toller and Mary is genuine and personal and pushing boundaries in healthy ways, even if that does transgress best practices of pastoral care. And in this film, the stakes are far higher than the appropriateness of a professional/pastoral relationship. No one is immaculate in this film, not even Mary. Total depravity, a very Reformed concept, is on full display. Seeing hope (or salvation) in the midst of that reality and the despair it produces is essential to the film (and, I believe, to Christian faith). And I see a lot of grace and beauty in their relationship, too. From a relationship standpoint, I don’t fully buy the realism of the ending of , which Ken compared to the end of this film, either, but that doesn’t mean that the end of that film isn’t any less transcendent, inspired, and fitting. I do buy Ken's comparison. On this point, Peter, I’m really curious if you though the ending of First Reformed could be seen as something like an instantiation of the Father Zosima quote I posted earlier, about being saved by God at the very moment of personal failure? As I mentioned earlier, I see ! As to Peter's point about the film becoming more conventional in terms of . I do wish we had gotten to know more of the two main female characters, but this is Toller’s story, so we don’t. I guess the film was stylistically and otherwise unconventional enough, including in the depth and seriousness of its religious and environmental questioning, and increasingly so in latter parts of the film, that I looked past the lack of depth on some of those relational aspects.
  15. I’m on board, and Andrew's consideration applies to me, and I tend to agree. As someone who has only been participating here for a year and a half or so and is a cinephile who enjoys writing about film but is not a film critic, I would value the input/judgment of the longtime members more than my own. I am happy just to be included/welcomed into the process to the extent that I am. I tend to gravitate toward older, slower, more thoughtful and spiritually-oriented films, the kind that make up the Top 100. I’m more interested in, invested in, and eager to discuss them than the future and current releases that make up the majority of discussion on the board. Not being a film critic, I tend to watch more tried-and-true films than I do new releases. (And the Image Ecumenical Jury list is one of my main guides for newer films! So please, you all, do keep making those lists!) I should add that I came to the board after coming across the 2011 Top 100 list shortly after it was created, and I realized it was my kind of list and you all are my kind of cinephiles! That said, I agree with Joel in principle. This board has an ethos of exclusivity as it is. (That’s probably inevitable with so many longtime and committed members—a major strength—but still…) And Joel himself has been one of the most active participants here in the years I have been lurking and then participating, and I read and highly respect his posts and reviews. Even if he hasn’t made thousands of posts, his voice carries as much weight here to me as anyone’s. Same goes for Evan, and others. That kind of participation can’t be quantified the way that post count can. That’s this relative newbie’s take. Perhaps there could be a nomination round, then a "weighted" first round of voting to determine what films will be on the list, and then another unweighted round to determine the ranking of those films (perhaps using some form of submitting and combining directly ranked lists). That would ensure that relatively-unseen but well-loved gems don’t get excluded, and probably create some level of continuity with the past, but it would also make the ranking more meaningful and allow for better discussions. It would also take longer, but at this point I’m not sure a 2018 release is realistic anyway for a Top 100. And it sounds like others are happy to dispense with weighted voting altogether. What alternatives to the old method do others think should be considered?