Film Review: Imaginary Heroes (2004) by Dan Harris

When a family's son commits suicide, they learn to live with his loss -- and with each other
Imaginary Heroes poster


Imaginary Heroes” is director Dan Harris’s 2004 film about a family’s struggle to cope with the suicide of its youngest son. Each of the film’s characters brings a very real, complicated response to the table: there’s the mother Sandy (played by Sigourney Weaver, who truly steals the show) who self-medicates with marijuana and her husband, Ben (Jeff Daniels), whose denial of their son’s death renders him even colder than he already was. Their surviving children, Tim (Emile Hirsch) and Penny (Michelle Williams), have their own unique battles with their grief – and it doesn’t seem to help that their parents are struggling just as much, if not in ways more “immature” than their own.

Of the many ways death tends to be explored in Hollywood films, Heroes takes an admirable path. There’s no air of romanticizing the loss (ex. as with the “Sick Lit” genre), nor is there a well-defined path laid out for each of the characters’ grieving processes. Instead, we see the already simmering tensions in their relationships come to a boiling point after the death of the family’s “star” son, Matt. His death is a shock to everyone – he was well liked at school, resident jock, etc. – and doesn’t have the fairytale effect of “bringing everyone together.” Sometimes, the path towards learning to live with your grief is ugly.

“…we see the already simmering tensions in their relationships come to a boiling point after the death of the family’s “star” son, Matt.”

The reason Harris is able to successfully dive into such an intense plot lies in his decision to use biting – though sometimes cringe-worthy – humor via the ever-dynamic Sigourney Weaver. Her character has been wild from youth, and her dialogue, especially with the youngest son Tim, brings a much needed comic relief to an otherwise heavy film. Because for all of the film’s strong points, it can end up feeling a bit overcrowded in its bevy of
personal dramas.

Imaginary Heroes is certainly not the movie to watch if you’re in the mood for something that leans more towards the calm and sensitive on the subject of coping with death. But it is useful if not for the fact that it looks beyond the event of the death itself, zooming in on the repercussions of loss.

Explore more of SevenPonds’s Lending Insight posts here.

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“A friend of mine stopped smoking, drinking, overeating, and chasing women — all at the same time. It was a lovely funeral.”

- Unknown


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What Does Genocide Look Like Through the Eyes of a Killer?

How death squad leader Anwar Congo views his role in the Indonesian killings of 1965
Anwar and his colleague sitting in a car and smiling


Life was brutal for many Indonesians in the mid-1960s, unless you happened to be a gangster selling movie tickets on the black market.

They also extorted money from Chinese people living in the area. When they could not pay, they were killed.

This is how Anwar Congo got his start as one of the most feared men in his town. When tensions mounted between the government and communist rebel fighters in the early 1960s, government officials hired prominent gangsters to carry out nationwide executions of people suspected to be communists. They also extorted money from Chinese people living in the area. When they could not pay, they were killed.

About 500,000 people lost their lives that year.

If you expect this story to have a happy ending, it doesn’t. Today, Anwar and his colleagues are revered members of their community. Young people in the paramilitary group Pemuda Pancasila look up to Anwar as a leader and an example of a high-quality man. This is one of the perks of winning a war.

It’s still a dangerous time to be accused as a traitor in Indonesia, so when Joshua Oppenheimer set out to make his documentary The Act of Killing, he had trouble forming a story around the survivors. The group of survivors told him to talk to the killers instead.

The Act of Killing cuts between scenes from Anwar’s “movie” and scenes of Anwar making decisions about what to wear, where to film and how his actors should say their lines.

Poster for The Act of Killing featuring women in red dresses walking out of the mouth of a huge stone fish statue


The resulting documentary is unlike anything else in the genre. Oppenheimer tells Anwar to direct his own dramatized account of what his life was like when he killed people in the 1960s. The Act of Killing cuts between scenes from Anwar’s “movie” and scenes of Anwar making decisions about what to wear, where to film and how his actors should say their lines.

In early scenes, Anwar dances around an outdoor patio where he remembers killing hundreds of people between 1965 and 1966. He laughs with his colleague and boisterously tells stories about how he would hit on women outside of the movie theater across the street before coming upstairs to strangle someone on the patio with wire.

He says over and over that “gangster” means “free man,” and he’s proud to be a gangster.

At his most confident, Anwar views himself as John Wayne or Marlon Brando. He says over and over that “gangster” means “free man,” and he’s proud to be a gangster. You hear Indonesian government officials use the same rhetoric in their speeches.

Anwar and many of his peers say they believe that what they were doing in the 1960s was fighting for freedom. As movie fans, his colleagues took their cues from American actors. They worshiped the stoicism of John Wayne and the brutality of New York gangsters in films. These were free men doing as they pleased and taking disrespect from no one.

Anwar smoking a cigar dressed as a 1920s American gangster


Warning: The next paragraph contains major spoilers for The Act of Killing.

The illusion Anwar has for himself comes into full bloom toward the final scene of his “movie.” He stands in front of a waterfall on a cluster of rocks, surrounded by glowing, singing women. It’s his version of what heaven looks like. On his right, two men take off the wire around their necks. One of the men places a medal around Anwar’s neck and says, “Thank you for freeing us by executing us and sending us to heaven.”

But for all of the shallow Western films Anwar claims to align his life with, and for all of the talk about freeing people from their earthly prisons, by the end of the documentary, Anwar seems to fully grasp what he did for the first time.

He tells Oppenheimer that pretending to be executed in his movie made him feel afraid. He said he could feel what his victims must have felt. Oppenheimer corrects him. His victims didn’t feel the same fear as Anwar, because their fear was real. Their deaths were real.

When Anwar returns to his patio where he killed so many people decades ago, he dry heaves. Where he once proudly demonstrated the cleanest way to kill a human being, he picked up his wire and doubled over in a cough. Once proud and self-assured, in the end, he says he isn’t sure whether what he did was a sin.

Nationalism and pride form a protective bubble around those who kill, one that can only be broken through seeing what they did objectively.

Anwar stands in front of a waterfall with a group of glowing women


Remorse is a cross-cultural emotion, but Anwar’s story is an example of how fluid this emotion can be. What happens when you’re not only unpunished for murdering hundreds of people, but you are actually viewed as a hero? Remorse has no place in this situation. People are hard-pressed to feel sorry for something no one else around them sees as wrong. Nationalism and pride form a protective bubble around those who kill, one that can only be broken through seeing what they did objectively.

The Act of Killing proves that no matter where you were born, guilt and mourning only apply if you lose the war.

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Why Does It Seem Like Everyone Has Cancer?

George Johnson, a former New York Times editor and reporter, analyzes why it seems likes everyone has cancer
Cancerous cells, Cancer


In a recent article in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, former editor and reporter George Johnson reflected on how “when the government publishes its Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, it is followed by a familiar lament” that “we are losing the war against cancer.” For the longest time, heart disease has been the leading cause of death. Cancer, however, is edging itself closer to taking over that spot.

Johnson believes that the “comparison is unfair” because cancer is a much more difficult problem to tackle due to it being “a condition deeply ingrained in the nature of evolution and multicellular life.” As he puts it, “the war on cancer implies that with enough money and determination, science might reduce cancer mortality as dramatically as it has with other leading killers — one more notch in medicine’s belt.” While that would be a wonderful development, Johnson goes further by wondering what would be the cause of death for people since the two main causes of death — heart disease and cancer — “are primarily diseases of aging” and that “fewer people succumbing to one means more people living long enough to die from the other.”

Why does cancer continue to linger so much, even as the rates slowly seem to be declining? This “standoff is a kind of success” thanks to the gradual increases in our average life expectancies. Since it’s “almost 79″ now and “the median age of cancer death is 72,” it’s not as much a surprise that “we live long enough for it to get us.”

What makes cancer special is that, unlike other diseases that have caused deaths in both the past and present times, there is not just “a single infectious agent, a precise cause that could be confronted.” Cancer is “the result of a basic evolutionary compromise” because “as a body lives and grows, its cells are constantly dividing, copying their DNA.” All of this copying through several generations of cells can undoubtedly lead to errors somewhere down the road. Although the “cells have developed complex mechanisms that identify and correct many of the glitches,” these systems are far from perfect. It is  likely that they never will be because “mutations are the engine of evolution.” In the case of cancer, when a single cell gets “too much power,” it gains independence and “like a new species thriving in an ecosystem, it grows into a cancerous tumor.”

Therefore, this is the key behind why cancer risks increase as we age — the longer we live, the more chances our cells have of possibly mutating into cancer. In a sense, “cancer will eventually kill you — unless you die first of something else,” which “would be true even in a world free from carcinogens and equipped with the most powerful medical technology.”

While the war against cancer will continue for years to come, progress and encouragement for a future with less cancer stems from the continued effort in prevention methods, such as public sanitation improvements, anti-smoking campaigns and the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccine.

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Memorial Song: “All Of My Love” by Led Zeppelin

These hard rock titans pay an unexpected tribute to the sudden death of a child in this haunting memorial song
Robert Plant holding his son Karac and walking beside his daughter

Credit: Warner Brothers

When you hear the name “Led Zeppelin,” you probably think of John Bonham’s thundering drums, Jimmy Page’s dirty, crunchy guitar riffs and Robert Plant’s howling vocals. They’re best-known for singing about sex, drugs and hobbits. But this group has a softer side, which they showcase beautifully on “All Of My Love.”

The simple chorus resonates over the hum of a keyboard:

All of my love, all of my love,
All of my love to you.

The song might seem like a cheesy ode to romantic love, but it has a far deeper meaning for singer Robert Plant. He wrote it as a tribute to his son, who died at age five of complications from a stomach infection.

In the summer of 1977, Led Zeppelin was at their peak success, arriving in New Orleans for a packed show. Before they hit the stage, Plant received a call from his wife saying their son Karac had become extremely ill. Two hours later, he received another call announcing his son had died. He and guitarist Jimmy Page caught the soonest flight back to their hometown in England and cancelled the rest of their tour.

One year later, the band was set to record their latest album In Through the Out Door, featuring Plant’s heart-wrenching tune written for Karac. He would go on to write two other songs for his child, but “All Of My Love” is the only one that became a radio hit.

The verses are ethereal and surrealist, like most Led Zeppelin songs, combining literary allegory with obscure metaphors:

Yours is the cloth, mine is the hand that sews time
his is the force that lies within
Ours is the fire, all the warmth we can find
He is a feather in the wind

Read the lyrics here, or listen to the full song below:

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Teixobactin: Giving “Superbugs” a Run for Their Money?

A new antibiotic shows promising results in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria

Credit: zmescience

The term “superbug” refers to any form of drug-resistant bacteria, the presence of which has become increasingly worrisome in the United States. In a recent article, TIME reported that “at least 2 million infections and 23,000 deaths” occur in the US due to superbugs. Yet the same article hails the potential of a new antibiotic: teixobactin.

doctors, doctors in room, doctors talking


Teixobactin has the potential to one-up superbugs, which are currently expected to “kill as many as 10 million people by the year 2050” (TIME). The antibiotic was successfully tested on mice infected with Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), beating out the infectious bacteria with – yes – a 100 percent success rate. Nature also published an extensive article about its performance, calling it “exceptionally active” amongst various bacteria. But have we really found the antibiotic to trump all?

“Teixobactin has the potential to one-up superbugs, which are currently expected to ‘kill as many as 10 million people by the year 2050′”

It is important to understand why the medical and scientific community is so thrilled with teixobactin. It’s “the first new class of antibiotic announced in decades,” says Forbes’ Pharma & Healthcare contributor Judy Stone, “[prior] antibiotic development has stagnated as pharmaceutical companies have instead turned their attention to the far more profitable ventures of drugs for chronic diseases, like diabetes or heart disease. Antibiotics had been relegated to the role of the unwanted stepchild.”

superbugs protection, washing hands, woman washing hands


The very means by which it was discovered by Northwestern University researchers is exciting: they created a new method that “grows bacteria in its native dirt rather than a lab dish” (TIME). There are still some bugs that it couldn’t tackle, but it was immensely successful in others – not to mention without any trace of toxicity, or hemolytic activity (the breakdown of red blood cells). Although the journey from lab to consumer is lengthy, teixobactin shows a promising step forward.

What do you think? Is teixobactin going to weed out the “bugs” once it’s on the market, or will it fall victim to overuse and thus encourage more resistance? We look forward to your comments below.

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