Little murders: A death diorama from "Of Dolls & Murder."

Little murders: A death diorama from "Of Dolls & Murder."


In the 1930s and ‘40s, Chicago heiress Frances Glessner Lee devoted herself to a strange enterprise. She created intricate miniature dioramas of imaginary crime scenes where 6-inch mannequins lay splayed and bloody in meticulously detailed bedrooms, kitchens and streets. These macabre dollhouses, known as the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are the subject of Minneapolis director Susan Marks’s eerie new documentary “Of Dolls and Murder.”

Narrated with morbid gusto by cult filmmaker/true crime fan John Waters, the feature-length film is a police procedural like no other. The dioramas are used by the Maryland Medical examiner’s Office to train police detectives to observe closely and reason carefully. With their tiny bodies noosed to barn rafters or slumped beside a diminutive carbine rifle, these really, really still lives are early entries in the field of forensic science, the Jurassic ancestors of C.S.I. The homey Nutshells, with their cluttered bureaus, crocheted bedspreads and Lilliputian furniture, aren’t Minute Mysteries, however. There are no tidy solutions waiting to be discovered. They are death scenes constructed to force close observation and serious contemplation of violent fatalities.

Marks peppers her film with expert talking heads: autopsy technicians, Baltimore and Washington D.C. detectives, TV crime show producers and academics. As the camera takes slow, Ken Burns-style pans across the grisly make-believe massacres or tags along on actual investigations, her expert observers consider our bottomless fascination with murder and the fictional, scientific and legal craving for clues, explanations and closure.
“What Frances Glessner Lee successfully did was expose the supposed domestic tranquility for what it really is, which is a fraud, with scenes of violence and death and suicide,” comments Dr. John Erik Troyer of the Centre for Death & Society, University of Bath, England. 
Dr. Katherine Ramsland, author of “The C.S.I. Effect,” takes the disquieting analysis of domestic bloodshed a step further. “We have a culture that thrives on romantic notions and fairy tales and the hope that one day things will be perfect,” she says. “As a result people get complacent and feel as if they’ll be safe and they marry somebody they think is going to be the ultimate guardian, the person who will make everything perfect and safe and wonderful. But when somebody gets murdered, the spouse is always the first person” under suspicion.
The film is a chilling blast of kitsch noir. It's unrated but features some brief, ghastly images of decaying human remains from Tennessee's famous Body Farm forensic research facility. 
The regional premiere is 7:30 p.m. Sept. 28 at The heights Theatre, 3951 Central Av. NE, Columbia Heights. Admission: $10-12. A Q & A will follow and then a premiere party at 331 Club in Northeast Minneapolis with the band Bernie King & the Guilty Pleasures. Get tickets here or call 651-644-1912.

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