‘Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project’ Review: Personal Obsession Becomes a Remarkable Piece of History

Tribeca: Matt Wolf's insightful documentary explores Stokes' accidental archival obsession, and what it says about both her and America at large.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project Review: Obsession Becomes History
"Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project"
Tribeca Film Festival

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 over 70,000 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. Stokes recorded multiple channels of television every day, every hour for over thirty years, but it all started with just one push of a VCR button in 1977.

Matt Wolf’s remarkable “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.

The recording isn’t even the most fascinating part of Stokes’ life: “Recorder” is the kind of film that can chart its subject’s early dalliances with Communism, her first marriage, the birth of her only child, and an attempt to move to Cuba within less than five minutes, before moving on to bigger stories. Before her recording began, Stokes was something of a television star herself, frequently appearing on a local Philadelphia current affairs chat show called “Input.” In her personal time, she nurtured an affection for watching (and sometimes recording) television of all stripes, including sitcoms, nature documentaries, and news magazines. As unique as her life eventually became, Wolf lays out some compelling and subtle groundwork: it all seemed oddly meant to be.

Various interview subjects, from Stokes’ son to dedicated employees like her nurse and chauffeur, are quick to note Stokes’ keen awareness of how the news cycle moved and influenced public opinion, early observations that are both profound and prophetic. Everyone agrees that it was the 1979 Iranian Hostage Crisis that really changed things for Stokes, however, and by her own son Michael’s admission, she became “obsessed” with the media’s coverage of the story. Convinced the “raw story” was being obscured, she started taping the news, all the better to prove how rapidly and completely the official story changed during the crisis. She wasn’t wrong.

Wolf wisely doesn’t aim to use “Recorder” as a way to catalogue everything Stokes recorded — that would be exhausting and foolish — but the film is still packed with enough of Stokes’ archives to paint an insightful picture of both her and the world she sought to document. The film offers a crash course in some of America’s own greatest news obsessions, from Baby Jessica to Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, the impeachment of Bill Clinton to 9/11 and quite literally everything in between. Stokes was on hand to record the announcement of the first Macintosh computer (she later became an Apple “evangelist” and identified deeply with Steve Jobs). She captured hours and hours of congressional hearings. Need your memory jogged when it comes to the 1985 MOVE bombing or the Unabomber or Oprah’s rise to fame? It’s all in Stokes’ archive.

“It was a project for everybody to be doing,” her nurse explains of the process of recording. At its height, Stokes was taping news twenty-four hours a day on eight different VCRs and televisions. Her tapes filled her tony Rittenhouse Square house, other apartments, and a variety of storage spaces. Other idiosyncrasies ruled her life, and even Michael doesn’t shy away from calling her a hoarder. And yet her skill at spotting history in the making allowed Stokes’ obsession to transcend such boundaries and turn her into one of local news’ most prolific archivists.

Late in the film, the difference between trash and a real “collection,” one talking head muses, is the value other people place on it. While the value of Stokes’ tapes were disputed as she made them, their worth is no longer a question. Neither is hers.

Grade: B+

“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution. 

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