Tuesday, May 1, 2012

In a Nutshell

Frances Glessner Lee isn't a household name, but it should be. She was born in 1878 to agricultural equipment businessman, John Jacob Glessner, who became quite wealthy when a merger between his firm and others, including one owned by JP Morgen, created International Harvester in 1902. Although her brother went off to study medicine at Harvard, she was denied the opportunity due to her gender. Nevertheless, she subsequently developed a keen interest in forensic investigation partially through her friendship with her brother's classmate, George Burgess Magrath. Magrath, who would later become a chief medical examiner in Boston, successfully lobbied, along with Glessner Lee, to have coroners replaced by medical professionals. In 1931, Glessner Lee would endow Harvard with the first department in the country to study legal medicine as well as creating Harvard Associates in Police Science, a national organization intended to promote forensic science.

If Frances Glessner Lee's involvement with forensics had ended there, it certainly would have been an enormous accomplishment by any standard especially considering the era, the field and her gender. But, without a doubt, the most fascinating aspect of her work in forensic science came in the 40's and 50's with her series of "Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death". Still in use as a training tool by the Harvard Associates in Police Science today, the so-called "Nutshells" were dioramas created by Glessner Lee that meticulously recreated actual crime scenes in miniature. They are the principle subject of Susan Marks 2012 documentary, Of Dolls & Murder.

Narrated by John Waters, the documentary works best when it focuses on either Frances Glessner Lee or the Nutshells themselves. In fact, the weakness in the doc is that it strays from these riveting subjects into a more general discussion of forensic investigation, how it's used, and people's misconceptions and discomfort with the subject. I don't know why Marks felt the need to delve into the more conventional topics, because the one-two punch of Glessner Lee's life and the Nutshells seem to provide ample material to easily sustain interest for the doc's hour-plus runtime. Most of the other non-related information was of only mild curiosity with the notable exception of "The Body Farm" which could have, and maybe should have, been the subject of a whole other documentary. I found the place, the young woman who worked there, and her notion of beauty in decay, to be quite engaging. It's easy to see the parallel Marks was drawing between this young woman and Glessner Lee, who despite being ahead of her time, was probably looked at askance considering her field of interest and work.

Maybe part of the reason Marks didn't invest all her doc's time in the Nutshells is that they aren't meant to be "who-dunnits" as one instructor explains to his class, but to gather facts and information from the recreation. As such, there is no reveal related to each diorama beyond the observable. The one instructor who has the answers to the cases keeps them locked away for obvious reasons - if anyone were to know the answer in advance, it would defeat the purpose of the training. This may frustrate some viewers who are used to being given the key to a mystery at the end, but I found it made the Nutshells even more enigmatic and captivating. 
The narration by Waters was fine, but added a weirdness factor that wasn't really necessary. Ultimately, the biggest accomplishment of the documentary was to introduce a great lady who was previously unknown to me, and her fascinating work in an unusual field of study.

Score 8/10

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