Technology merges with political idealism into a mad obsession in the new documentary, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project. Driven by the desire to capture and catalogue the way that the news media manipulates and shapes the history that it relays, former librarian Marion Stokes started videotaping TV news twenty-four hours a day, on multiple channels, for roughly three decades. When she passed away in 2012, she had amassed an archive of 70,000 VHS tapes.
At one point in Recorder, Marion’s son Michael Metelits suggests that the difference between a hoarder and a collector is whether someone else agrees that what is being saved is of value. By this guideline, director Matt Wolf suggests that Marion was probably a little of both. In addition to her massive VHS archive, Marion collected newspapers and books (which she read cover to cover), Apple computers (she felt a kinship to Steve Jobs), and other ephemera, like diner syrup containers.
But director Wolf, who previously relied on found footage for the majority of his 2013 documentary Teenage, builds a convincing case for the historical value and present-day relevance of Marion’s ambitious videotaping project merely by showing us selected highlights. Brief glimpses of Kellyanne Conway (then known as Kellyanne Fitzpatrick) and Jeff Sessions in the ’80s demonstrate just how difficult predicting the importance of any piece of footage might be in the future. Wolf uses Marion’s tapes to replay a number of major moments in U.S. political and pop culture history — the Iran hostage crisis, Baby Jessica in the well, Magic Johnson’s HIV revelation, 9/11, Obama’s presidential election, Sandy Hook — but he also clumps together different thematic clips to show the way broader themes and prejudices reveal themselves in TV reportage over time.
Wolf balances the segments on Marion’s archival work with interviews about her personal life. As a young, politically engaged black woman, she was an appealing recruit for the Communist party in the late ’50s. This put her on the FBI’s radar, which in turn helped to fuel Marion’s distrust of the powerful (and likely inspired her reclusiveness). Her involvement in a public affairs panel discussion TV show led to her relationship with John Stokes, a rich idealist seemingly unimpressed by the world of privilege. Their shared political convictions made them a strong match, while John’s wealth helped to fund Marion’s collecting (although her early investment in Apple computers no doubt netted her a fortune).
Michael Metelits and Marion’s stepchildren are too kind to speak ill of the dead, but one gets the impression that family life was tumultuous and alienating for the kids. They suggest that, at a certain point, Marion’s videos began to take the place of human connection for her.
The film, too, seems more at ease exploring the interesting nooks and crannies of Marion’s homemade archive than in digging into her life. Recorder is not superficial, but one feels the filmmakers pulling some punches — say, choosing to flash some fun forgotten TV commercial instead of plumbing a little further into a family story — and it creates a hint of narrative aimlessness in the middle.
Recorder regains its focus by the conclusion, as the fate of Marion’s collection is discussed. By then, the historical value of Marion’s work has been thoroughly argued, but director Wolf is smart enough to leave it up to viewers to decide whether or not the single-minded means are justified by the overwhelmingly extensive end.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project opens today at the Landmark Nuart Theater in Los Angeles.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.