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The Art of Murder

Death-scene diorama documentary also explores what forensic science can and can't reveal

One of Frances Glessner Lee's nutshell studies of unexplained death.

By Rachel Monroe | Posted 5/5/2010

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Filmmaker Susan Marks' favorite place in Baltimore is on the third floor of the Maryland Medical Examiner's office--three floors above the morgue, and down a hallway lined with plastic models of corpses' heads. This is the unassuming home of the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, 18 dioramas so intricately crafted that the dolls within them wear hand-knit stockings. One model's kitchen features a teensy coffee maker equipped with even teensier coffee filters; another has hand-whittled clothespins. All of this miniaturization might be cute--too cute, even--if all the dolls weren't corpses: hanging from the attic rafters, crumpled and bloodied in a closet, deceptively calm in bed. Look a little closer at the models and you'll start to notice the tiny shell casing in the kitchen, the suspicious package on the dresser, the miniature bloodstain on the floor.

Marks, a Minneapolis-based documentary filmmaker, first heard of the Nutshells eight years ago, when they were mentioned in an article--she can't remember where--about strange collections. They kept knocking around in her head as she went on to finish graduate school, write a book (2005's Finding Betty Crocker: The Secret Life of America's First Lady of Food), and produce and direct a short documentary (2006's "The Betty Mystique"). Corinne May Botz's lushly photographed 2004 book The Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death only deepened her interest. "I thought it would satisfy me," Marks says over the phone from Minneapolis. "And it didn't at all. It was written so well that I wanted to know more. . . . I just knew I had to see them in person."

Starting in 2007, that fascination led Marks to make several trips to Baltimore, where the Nutshells are on permanent loan to the Maryland Medical Examiner's Office. Those visits became part of Of Dolls and Murder, Marks' 70-minute documentary exploring the Nutshells, contemporary forensics, and the pursuit of justice. The documentary, narrated by Nutshell-enthusiast John Waters, is in post-production and scheduled to be completed by this summer.

Frances Glessner Lee, a crotchety Chicago heiress and self-trained forensics expert, painstakingly crafted the Nutshells in the 1930s and '40s. A pioneer in the then-emerging field of legal medicine, Lee created the Nutshells as training tools for police detectives and other death-scene investigators, who would hone their observational skills as they attempted to determine the dolls' likely cause of death: homicide, suicide, accident, or natural causes. Lee was nothing if not thorough; she based the dioramas on crime scenes she visited or read about and sat in on autopsies to make sure she got the details right. Each death scene is a composite of real cases, often tweaked to make the cause of death more puzzling, the clues more enigmatic. "[As] teaching tools, these [are] wonderful dolls that were made so well that they're still being used" in the biannual seminars of the Harvard Associates in Police Science, Marks points out.

For Marks and her filmmaking team (co-producer/editor/composer John Kurtis Dehn and cinematographer Matt Ehling), the Nutshells are not only valuable because they're frankly creepy, but also because of what they have to offer about the pursuit of justice both in the '30s and today. Crime television juggernauts such as CSI and its spin-offs have made fiber analysis and DNA-typing part of common parlance, but the Nutshells encourage a return to investigational fundamentals: hyper-acute observation in which nothing can be taken at face value. "If you don't read a crime scene correctly, then all the scientific tests you do afterward could be for naught," Marks says. "Truth and science are often looked at as the same thing. While it's true in many cases [that] the facts speak for themselves, they don't speak for everything."

In most cases, the Nutshells show a vision of lower-class life distant from Lee's own experience. Many of the dead dolls are found in shabby surroundings with artfully scuffed floors and precisely peeling wallpaper. Several of the crime scenes depict the deaths of prostitutes. "In those times, some people didn't take a prostitute's death all that seriously," Marks says. In making the Nutshells, Marks offers, Lee was forcing detectives to confront their own assumptions, showing them how prejudices could often lead to hasty, wrong conclusions.

But criminal investigation has come a long way since the '30s. Through their research for the film, the Dolls and Murder team visited various forensic hotspots, including the Body Farm in Tennessee and a St. Paul crime lab. They even got to accompany several Baltimore homicide detectives as they went on a death call. And though it was originally the dolls and their odd creator that drew Marks to the project, she soon found herself equally intrigued by the serious business of death-scene investigation. "Sometimes documentary filmmaking has a way of telling the filmmakers how to tell the story, not the other way around," she says.

For instance, the differences between television portrayals of crime scene investigators and the real deal emerged during shooting. Pop culture's take often ranges from the unrealistic to the patently absurd. Take, for instance, the 2006 CSI storyline that involved the Nutshell-inspired Miniature Killer, who crafted tiny scale models of crime scenes and planned murder methods--blunt-force trauma, liquid nicotine, electrocution, asphyxiation, crushing, and hanging--so their first letters spelled out "bleach," thus conveniently revealing the crucial traumatic childhood event that turned her into a serial murderer.

Marks expected to find some rivalry between the actual death-scene investigators and their Hollywood counterparts; instead, she encountered a deep feeling of mutual respect. In Dolls and Murder, Marks interviews Naren Shankar, a CSI executive producer. "He* had nothing but incredible things to say in a really honest way about the work of detectives and CSIs," Marks says. "The show uses them as consultants on staff, works with them closely. Everyone was so earnest and devoted their job, from Naren to the people who work at OCME [the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner] to the Baltimore homicide detectives."

The respect goes both ways. Jerry Dziecichowicz, administrator of the OCME and unofficial Nutshell curator, notes that CSI and its ilk have been "good for the business of death-scene investigation." Still, there's concern that contemporary juries are overly influenced by shows in which forensic evidence provides a neat and unequivocal solution at the end of each 40-minute episode. The worry is that CSI-viewing juries have unrealistic expectations of what forensic science can achieve--a phenomenon dubbed the CSI effect. "It's not like you can look at [the evidence] and say, 'He was a 7-foot tall albino with one eye,'" Dziecichowicz says. "When you want to hold police to that kind of level, it becomes distorted."

Marks was pleased to find professional respect extended to her filmmaking team as well, despite their status as outside observers. "I thought they might tolerate me, but I didn't think they'd be so interested in getting the truth out there," she says. "We in no way wanted to be sensational in our approach to telling the story, [and] people believed us. That inspired us to make the best film we could."

Not that the process was without struggles. Marks acknowledges the "really dismal realities" of making an independent documentary at a time when arts funding is drying up nationwide--"you can really see how people wouldn't want to go on"--but says that she and her filmmaking partners were bolstered by the support of the people they interviewed.

Another challenge in filming the Nutshells was that, as visually appealing as they may be, they're still static. Marks and her crew were fortunate enough to get further support from John Waters, who signed on as the documentary's narrator. Dolls and Murder uses Waters' narration to animate the dioramas: He doesn't function as a traditional narrator, but rather tells the stories of the Nutshell scenes in the documentary. "He was the absolute only person" for the job, Marks says. "We never even considered anyone else."

With Of Dolls and Murder--which Marks plans to submit for inclusion in the 2011 Maryland Film Festival--Marks hopes to introduce people to the dioramas, which aren't open to the public, and so deepen the public discussion of forensic science. The Nutshells, for all their precision, aren't puzzles to be solved; some don't even have a "right" answer. More than anything, they're occasions for observation, perceptual exercises. They're laboratories for looking and thinking--not surprisingly, Lee would prickle when people referred to them as dollhouses--so it's no wonder that they continue to intrigue people to this day.

* Correction: This story originally misquoted Susan Marks referring to CSI Executive Producer Naren Shankar as “she,” when Mr. Shankar is, in fact, a man. City Paper regrets the error.

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