If you’ve never seen one of Errol Morris’ self-dubbed “nonfiction films,” Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter Jr. should come as something of a revelation. But if you’ve followed Morris’ career since his 1978 debut feature, Gates of Heaven, you might share my feeling that we’ve taken this journey once too often.
Morris specializes in portraiture of human anomalies, real-life individuals possessed by extreme views of existence: pet cemetery operators (Gates of Heaven), small-town eccentrics (Vernon, Florida), an innocent man on death row (Morris’ masterpiece, The Thin Blue Line), physicist Stephen Hawking (A Brief History of Time), and Fast, Cheap & Out of Control’s quartet of obsessives—a lion tamer, an African mole-rat expert, a topiary gardener, and a robot designer.
The filmmaker discovered Leuchter, an engineer, more than a decade ago when articles about him appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. The coffee-guzzling (40 cups daily), chain-smoking (six packs a day) son of a Massachusetts prison worker, Leuchter initially came to prominence as a morbid humanitarian, designing efficient capital punishment devices—electric chairs, lethal injection systems, gas chambers, gallows—that did not inflict unnecessary pain. His pre-eminence in this field attracted the attention of neo-Nazi Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel, under indictment in Canada for publishing false history with intent to incite racial hatred. In 1988, Zundel’s defense team hired Leuchter to travel to Poland and determine whether the gas chambers at Auschwitz and Birkenau had really been sites of mass execution. Accompanied by his bride, a Dunkin’ Donuts waitress, Leuchter honeymooned near the death camps, from which he illicitly purloined chunks of stone and cement that he subsequently sent to an American laboratory for blind analysis. When the tests revealed no significant traces of cyanide, Leuchter concluded that the structures had never been used as gas chambers.
Although the judge at Zundel’s trial refused to admit Leuchter’s findings into evidence, this research was subsequently published as The Leuchter Report. With a half-million copies in print, it has become a key text for neo-Nazi organizations. At Zundel’s trial, chemist James Roth, manager of the lab that analyzed the gouged samples, dismissed Leuchter’s methodology as scientifically unsound, explaining that poison gas could not have permeated the chambers’ surfaces any deeper than 10 microns, one-tenth the diameter of a human hair.
This testimony has not altered Holocaust deniers’ support of Leuchter’s work, but he has suffered greatly for his efforts. He’s been reviled by Jewish groups, indicted for practicing engineering without a license, stripped of his prison execution device maintenance business, and abandoned by his wife. Morris gives us no reason to doubt Leuchter’s insistence that he is not anti-Semitic. Instead, the filmmaker views “Mr. Death” as a victim of his own sense of infallibility, a vain autodidact overwhelmed by the attention lavished upon him as a consequence of his flawed research.
Morris presents Leuchter’s story by employing the battery of devices he’s evolved in his earlier films. He shoots head-on, symmetrically framed interviews punctuated by black leader; intercuts old footage derived from newsreels and Leuchter’s concentration camp expedition; stages stylized re-enactments of past events; includes close-ups of evocative details (newspaper headlines, pieces of execution equipment); and underscores the images with tension-inducing Philip Glass-like tremolos with a sad, Sibelius-flavored waltz.
Morris’ style could not be mistaken for that of any other filmmaker, but, increasingly, he’s become preoccupied with form—Fast, Cheap & Out of Control was exhaustingly flash-edited like a music video—at the expense of content. A full half-hour, including a distressing 1903 Edison film of an elephant’s electrocution as well as unnecessarily repeated images and testimonies, could be pruned from Mr. Death without affecting its meaning. Ironically, Morris has begun to mirror his obsessive subjects. His way of looking at the world has grown so ritualized that his films are becoming predictable—a serious failing for an artist concerned with singular phenomena.
Predictability is one of the few things Madonna has never been accused of. My favorite of the shape-shifting performer’s many incarnations remains Body of Evidence’s pumped-up tramp, who literally screws men to death. A half-dozen times in this definitive guilty pleasure, characters declare her to be “a beautiful woman,” while it’s evident to any sentient viewer that she resembles a hybrid of Marilyn Monroe and a mortadella. Since then, she’s gone upscale, altering her facial trademarks (the lip mole and the gap between her front teeth), expanding her vocal range, and assuming a phony British accent to help her snag the title role in Evita, the chronicle of a similar self-creator.
Madonna’s current manifestation, on exhibit in The Next Best Thing, is lean, limber, and slightly ropy, with golden ringlets of pre-Raphaelite hair and an elongated, angular profile—a blurred, less witchy Sarah Jessica Parker. But the clause in her contract requiring that her co-stars pronounce her “beautiful” remains in effect. Rupert Everett twice describes her thus, although, with his matinee-idol profile and torso waxed as smooth as a pear, he’s a more deserving candidate for the term.
I admit that I’m regarding these performers as objects, but that’s essentially how they present themselves. As anyone exposed to any one of the mass media knows by now, Madonna, a single mother, and the openly gay Everett are best buddies. Thomas Ropelewski has written a screenplay to cash in on this friendship. We’re never really expected to believe that Madonna is Abbie, a lovelorn yoga instructor, and Everett is Robert, a gay gardener. If The Next Best Thing were intended to be anything more than an occasion for stargazing, surely Ropelewski and director John Schlesinger would have taken some pains to make it marginally credible.
For its first hour, The Next Best Thing is a passable comedy about two disillusioned 30-something Los Angeles friends who, unable to find suitable soulmates, form an unconventional family and raise the child resulting from their one-night drunken dalliance. Abbie, who has been abandoned by a self-involved rap-record producer, apparently has no relatives and few acquaintances apart from a gaggle of luncheon girlfriends chosen, like the black velvet backing of a dime-store painting, to enhance her radiance. By contrast, Robert comes equipped with an Auntie Mame mother (Lynn Redgrave), a killjoy father (Josef Sommer), and a nosegay of supportive pals.
Until the baby arrives, the movie is predictable but not unentertaining: campy, good-natured sex jokes and homages to old movie musicals interspersed with the funeral of an AIDS victim to add a touch of poignancy. But these scenes suffer from a surprising lack of stellar chemistry. However chummy Madonna and Everett might be offscreen, they convey little feeling for one another beyond the mutual recognition of a fellow narcissist, leaving a chilly void at what should be the film’s heart.
After the child’s birth, the narrative awkwardly leaps six years ahead. Abbie, Robert, and little Sam (Malcolm Stumph) reside in a roomy, comfortable house that no sane L.A. realtor would waste time even showing to a yoga teacher and a gardener. Abbie has remained celibate; Robert takes the occasional break from devoted parenting to enjoy recreational sex with a muscular, unwaxed cardiologist who wants a long-term relationship. But Robert’s first and only priority is fathering Sam.
Then Abbie meets and falls for Ben (Benjamin Bratt), who purports to be, of all oxymorons, a benevolent investment banker. (What’s with the parallel sets of raised welts on Bratt’s chest that make him look like the survivor of a vintage Richard Harris Native American ritual movie?) At this point, The Next Best Thing plunges into soap opera and becomes a far worse thing. Hitherto concealed questions about Sam’s parentage clumsily arise along with squabbles over the boy’s custody. In a gender switch on Stella Dallas, The Old Maid, and other ’30s self-sacrificing-mother weepies, Robert acts out the big crying scenes while Abbie turns bitter and withdrawn. The screenplay paints itself into a corner with stilted courtroom sequences (featuring creepy Illeana Douglas as Robert’s ineffectual lawyer) and Ben’s crisis-provoking decision to accept a job in New York, taking Abbie and Sam along with him. A makeshift closing scene, pretentiously shot in silhouette against a sunset sky, manages to end the movie without solving any of the problems it poses.
The Next Best Thing isn’t hard to take as long as it remains a lightweight star-vanity vehicle. But it sours when it attempts (and fails) to jerk tears by exploiting the often painful subject of the relationships of gay parents and their children. Nicholas Hytner’s The Object of My Affection (1998), another movie about a pregnant straight woman and a gay man, dealt with this subject more effectively and affectingly. Not only because its leads, Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, had not hardened into mirror-gazing icons, but also because it managed to reconcile, albeit a bit too glibly, the conflicting demands of love, friendship, and parenthood. CP