Love and Death

In Mr. Death, documentarian Errol Morris trains his beloved Interrotron on execution technologist-turned-Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter

"Reality? You mean this is the real world?" a character croaks at the beginning of Errol Morris's Vernon, Florida, his 1981 study of front-stoop bullshitters and crackpot philosophers in a jerkwater swamp town. This question of the nature of reality is one that Morris has returned to again and again in his work--a series of stylish and highly eccentric films that tackle epistemology and obsession with all the breakneck zeal of classic Warner Bros. cartoons. (Befitting that energy, the Walker Art Center is screening five of Morris's films in a mere three days--through Friday--as part of "A Brief History of Errol Morris.")

Morris is apparently wired like a border collie. He has always had an almost unbelievable divining rod for characters, and a gift--equal parts that of psychiatrist and private investigator (a job he worked at for a time)--for interrogating obsession. His films are triumphs of listening; you virtually never hear Morris's voice in his movies, and his subjects speak with uncanny ease and volubility, directly addressing the camera. His Interrotron--an invention that, through the use of two-way mirrors, projects his face directly in front of the camera's lens--provides his subjects with the illusion of face-to-face conversation, personalizing the encounter at the same time that the presence and attention of the camera panders to the subject's ego.

Coupled with Morris's skills as a collaborator (as opposed to a mere inquisitor), the Interrotron functions as both harbor and confessional booth, inspiring astonishing monologues and a sort of condensed character development that's missing from most documentaries. But Morris doesn't consider his films documentaries; indeed, with his use of stylish reenactments and odd camera angles, and his mix of film stocks and techniques, he has managed to reinvent the form, tailoring the films to his own obsessions. And those obsessions are all over Morris's movies: eccentricity, order, control, the things we believe--often mistakenly--and why. And death. Always death. In Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the hypercaffeinated sad sack who's the ostensible subject of Morris's latest film, Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (which has its local premiere screening on Friday at 8:00 p.m.), Morris has seemingly found his perfect antihero: a flawed everyman through whom we can wrestle with the huge questions that have germinated in the director's other films.

The thin white line: Fred A. Leuchter Jr. in Mr. Death
The thin white line: Fred A. Leuchter Jr. in Mr. Death

"I learned all sorts of strange things as a youngster," Leuchter admits early in Mr. Death. Leuchter is a self-styled "execution technologist," a man with a 40-cup-a-day coffee habit who works at the design and repair of execution equipment. The son of a corrections professional, Leuchter was, from an early age, a prison tagalong, accompanying his father on his rounds and nosing around in the death house of the Massachusetts penitentiary. He eventually received a bachelor's degree in history from Boston University, but he somehow became a self-proclaimed engineer, as well as creating a business consulting with prisons around the nation on the building and maintenance of what he calls, without a trace of irony, "humane" execution systems.

Morris seldom concerns himself with backstory in his films, and in Mr. Death the question of how exactly Leuchter made the transition from a man with a history degree to "the Florence Nightingale of Death Row" remains a mystery. Like plenty of other Morris characters, however, Leuchter is an awkward-looking fellow with a gift for gab, and is clearly right at home with the Interrotron. "The human body is not easy to destroy," he admits, before presenting a horrifying and entertaining (that combination is an occasionally uncomfortable Morris trademark) disquisition on botched executions and all the things that can go wrong with death technology. His own custom-built electric chair would feature modular electrocution, so there would be "no excessive cooking" of the tissue, as well as instant-release straps and a drip pan to contain bodily fluids and "highly conductive urine." He envisions a lethal-injection chamber that would be state-of-the-art, designed for maximum comfort for the executee--something like a dentist's office, he imagines, complete with a comfy reclining chair, easy-listening music, and relaxing pictures on the wall.

Morris films Leuchter as he tests a gallows, fiddles around with an electric chair in his front yard, and monkeys with various apparatus designed to extinguish human life with an apparent minimum of suffering. In one particularly striking scene, a grinning, clearly gaga Leuchter allows himself to be strapped into an electric chair. We also meet the Dunkin' Donuts waitress who would become, briefly, Leuchter's wife. "He'd come in on his way to the gun club," she deadpans in an exhausted voiceover. "He taught me how to shoot." Theirs was clearly no starry-eyed courtship, however. "He was having problems at home with his mother," she says. "She wasn't talking to him, so we got married."

Morris does nothing to establish Leuchter's credentials, and includes no testimony from prison officials or anyone else who might address the quality of his work or the matter of his qualifications. It seems, in fact, that Leuchter has established himself as an expert in execution technology simply by virtue of having the field almost to himself; many potential competitors, he admits, have ethical reservations about the work. In essence, he became an expert simply by pretending to be one. "I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I could build lethal injection machines," he says. "I now build lethal injection machines, so now I'm competent to build a gallows. And since I'm building gallows, I'm also competent to work on gas chambers, because I've done all the other three." Even Leuchter seems bemused and astonished by this crazy logic.

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