In the early days of network television’s slide into wall-to-wall news coverage, Marion Stokes started a project with the flick of a button. It would consume the rest of her life and result in the creation of tens of thousands of video tapes, all of which were filled with hours upon hours of wide-ranging television footage, most of it focused on the behemoth that is news-based entertainment. A rabble-rouser, activist, and major intellect, Stokes had long been interested in the way media shaped public perception, and as the influence of televised media grew, she became obsessed with capturing as much footage as she could, all the better to see the world changing through a TV tube.
Matt Wolf’s remarkable new documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” uses Stokes’ recording obsession as a way to explore both Stokes herself and the world she literally committed to video tape. The results are fascinating, weird, and often quite moving. Though Wolf pieces together the basic truths of Stokes’ life through conventional means, including the use of a number of talking heads who knew Stokes best and extensive archival footage (from Stokes’ own collection, of course), he also assembles key pieces of video in inventive ways that likely would have tickled Stokes.
As the film’s official synopsis explains, “For over 30 years, Marion Stokes obsessively and privately recorded American television twenty-four hours a day. A civil rights-era radical who became fabulously wealthy and reclusive later in life, her obsession started with the Iranian Hostage Crisis in 1979 — at the dawn of the twenty-four hour news cycle. It ended on December 14, 2012 as the Sandy Hook massacre played on television while Marion passed away. In between, Marion filled 70,000 tapes, capturing revolutions, wars, triumphs, catastrophes, bloopers, talk shows and commercials that show us how television shaped the world of today and in the process tell us who we were.”
That’s right: 70,000 tapes. Stokes’ collection isn’t just a history of her own life in front of the television, it’s an insightful look at the way television news has shaped people, ideas, countries, and the entire world.
Zeitgeist Films in association with Kino Lorber will release the film in theaters on November 15. Check out the first trailer for “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” available exclusively on IndieWire, below.