LFF 2019: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project Review
According to friends and family, Marion Stokes was secretive and paranoid. And if true, she probably had every right to be. A fiercely intelligent woman who saw more value in gathering information than nurturing friends and family, she wondered what effect 24 hour news channels were having on society. What sort of mirror was it holding up back to us and what damage could it cause? In what ways were news stations controlling the conversation on key events in society?
That was 40 years before ‘fake news’ entered the lexicon and the legacy of her concerns have remained capsuled inside 70,000 VHS tapes. Matt Wolf’s documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, reveals how Marion recorded up to eight TV channels, 24/7, for 35 years, compiling an unprecedented account of human culture. When the Iran hostage crisis began in 1979 she believed key facts were slowly being altered and manipulated by news stations, so until her death in 2012, she hit record to keep track of how the world was being reported to us by the media.
If that sounds slightly bonkers, it’s something Marion was conscious of, which is why only close friends and family were aware of (and roped into helping) her never-ending project. With over 30 years of TV footage to choose from (much of which we learn has been disposed of by the stations themselves) Wolf has no shortage of material to work with. However, while the title suggests his focus will concentrate solely on Marion’s epic mid-to-late-life project, it becomes bogged down with a workmanlike biography stitched in between.
Which is not to say there isn’t any value in some of the insight provided by her son, family members and ex-employees (she married into money) but the film repeatedly immerses you into a collage of fascinating non-contextual footage lifted from the tapes, before the pacing dips back into first gear when returning to personal matters. What we do learn is Marion was a hoarder who collected over 40,000 books and multiple iterations of every Apple product released since 1984. Much of this was stored in several apartments packed to the rafters. She also invested heavily in Apple shares at any early stage, so you can imagine how that turned out for her over time.
Born Marion Metelits during the Depression era and fostered as a child, she later became a member of the Communist party in the 60s. She was a strong civil rights activist and frequently appeared on a local Philadelphia political talk show called ‘Input’. It’s here she met her future husband, John S. Stokes Jr., and it provided a platform for her to express her passion for social equality and justice. Friends and family recall how controlling she could be - which damaged her relationship with son Michael for most of his life - and an ex-employee fondly remembers her saying: “Everyone could be equal. As long as I’m in charge.”
Rather disappointingly, Wolf’s documentary doesn’t have any interest in pursuing the philosophy behind Marion’s project. She (rightly) believed the news was dictating our perception of the world, but to what end? Purely just for sensationalism and viewer ratings? Or did she believe in a larger conspiracy higher up the food chain? The latter is alluded to briefly at one point but never expanded upon. Nor is any mention made about what she planned to do with the tapes. She obviously wasn’t going to watch them back, so was this another one of her eccentricities, or part of a grander plan?
The line being towed in the documentary is that she was a mad genius of sorts, a visionary who saw what no-one else could at the time. A counter-argument is that this could simply be a result of an obsessive compulsive disorder that consumed her for much of her life. Quite remarkably, the Internet Archive are now in possession of the tapes and will be digitising every single one while also making them searchable (thanks to the closed captions). So while the documentary doesn’t live up to its promise, Marion’s 35 years of work appears to have found the right home and will reward researchers, and curious members of the public, for years to come.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project plays at this year's London Film Festival.
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