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Published June 21, 2024

In A Nutshell

A local documentary ponders the inevitable through an investigation of miniature murders.
In A Nutshell
Image by Photo courtesy Susan Marks


What: Of Dolls & Murder regional premiere

When: 7:30 p.m., Sept. 28

Where: The Heights Theater, 3951 Central Ave. NE, Columbia Heights

Cost: $10 members/$12 non-members

Ten years ago, local author and documentary filmmaker Susan Marks read an article about dollhouses that she would never forget. Years after that, she tried to shake her fascination with reading a book about those same diminutive dwellings.

âÄúI thought, âÄòPerfect, great. IâÄôll get that book and that will satisfy my curiosity with this story,âÄôâÄù**** Marks said. âÄúBut it really didnâÄôt. The book was so well-written that it just made me want to know more.âÄù

Four years ago, she decided to make a documentary about them. Next week, Marks will put up the fruits of her labor for an all-you-can-watch buffet at the Heights Theater.

Upon further examination, Marks no longer seems like the type of especially enterprising individual who knits all of their own berets. These dollhouses that have formed such an interest for Marks are no playthings. In fact, they are a series of depictions of grisly murders âÄî complete with blood streaks and the occasional one-inch kitchen knife âÄî handcrafted by Frances Glessner Lee in the âÄô30s and âÄô40s.

These dioramas, which form the basis of MarksâÄô documentary, âÄúOf Dolls & Murder,âÄù have been kept under lock and key in the Baltimore Medical ExaminerâÄôs Office since Lee donated them in 1945. The pint-sized crime scenes have served as both a fringe curiosity for morbid imaginations and also a valuable asset for the cityâÄôs homicide detective training programs for the past seven decades.

Each display âÄî called a âÄúNutshellâÄú âÄî is a case study of an actual murder or murders with a companionate solution. Lee crafted the shells on a 1-foot to 1-inch scale, and embellished her sets with meticulous details like printed newspapers, scattered bullet casings and hand-painted blood spatterings. She even went through the trouble of knitting tiny stockings on straight pins.

These Nutshell Studies, which would beCrafts Fair-level quaint if not for LeeâÄôs immaculately detailed work with doll stab wounds, form the launch pad for the documentaryâÄôs philosophical musings about death from experts ranging from a chief medical examiner to the executive producer of âÄúCSI.âÄù

âÄúA simplistic way to say it is that we were looking to strike this balance between camp and seriousness, but it was really more than that.âÄù Marks said. âÄúSome of the issues that we discuss in our film are âĦ difficult issues that could really bring a film down and could have it be really macabre and in a way difficult to watch.âÄù

The film achieves its delicate balance by placing the nutshells as a thematic coda for the rest of its insight and speculation. As the documentary saunters toward its conclusion, viewers are guided by the familiar voice-of-God-style narration from filmmaker John Waters.

Who knew God sounded like the effeminate director of âÄúPink Flamingos?âÄù

âÄúWe feel so lucky to have him part of the film,âÄù Marks said. âÄúI knew that he knew of the Nutshell studies of unexplained deaths âĦ and he was happy to do it.âÄù

The making of a documentary about death was no cakewalk, however. Marks slogged through morgues, crime scenes and the Body Farm: a swath of land for researchers to study the rates of decomposition of human bodies in various exterior locales, whether under open sunlight or the trunk of a car.

âÄúI couldnâÄôt handle the whole body farm experience,âÄù Marks said. âÄúHere is this rare thing âĦ which very few people know about, and so we really thought we wanted to go there. And when we got there, we were quite sure we didnâÄôt want to be there.âÄù

To clarify, âÄúOf Dolls & MurderâÄù is about a brilliant and wealthy old womanâÄôs hobby of accurately depicting what a gunshot blast to the head would look like on a 1-inch scale because she saw a need for it in crime scene investigation in theâÄô30s.

Because of her genius and foresight, our boys in blue still use them today.

âÄúOf Dolls & MurderâÄù walks its audience along the fine line between philosophical, legal and scientific perspectives on death and crime scene investigation. While every so often, John Waters pokes his head in to make sure the spiritual crises are kept to a minimum. ThatâÄôs it, in a nutshell.

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