Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
"Wolf and his top-notch editor Keiko Deguchi build a picture of both a life consumed by news and the way that news has, in some ways, come to consume all our lives with its 24-hour cycle." | Photo: Eileen Emond

The latest documentary from Matt Wolf (Teenage), which had its premiere at Tribeca Film Fesstival this week, is a hybrid of biography and societal comment.

At its heart is Marion Stokes, a librarian and sometime Communist activist who ultimately created a vast archive of her own using videotape. That makes her life sound considerably less bizarre than it was, although as one of the interviewees here asserts: "A lot of craziness produces a lot of brilliance."

Certainly, there was a fair amount of "craziness" in what would become Marion's lifelong project. It's hard not to wonder whether the fact she was given up for adoption - something it seems she never fully came to terms with - was one of the reasons she couldn't bear to throw anything away, but whatever the psychological drivers, Marion was a packrat. She doubtless already had the tendency but, as interviews with her extended family show, she had much more freedom to focus on this after her second marriage to her co-producer on a local political chat show, John Stokes. He was from old money and had the sort of inherited wealth that permits free time - although there's no doubting that the pair of them were utterly dedicated to one another, the tragedy being that this, plus Marion's dogmatic and obsessive tendencies led to the exclusion of virtually anything else, including their children from their first marriages.

At the time of her death, Marion had tens of thousands of books in her possession, not to mention newspapers. But the chief object of her obsession was recording programmes from the television - 70,000 tapes give or take, which she used up to eight at a time 24/7 to record various television channels.

We can see the birth of this - and the start of Marion's real 'collecting' - with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, which became a 444-day saga that spawned a nightly update show all of its own, Nightline, which is like a predecessor of today's rolling news. Wolf and Marion's family make the case that she was interested not just in the news but in the way that it was presented and what was omitted or elided, leading her to begin this sort of taped cross-comparison of networks.

Blending the testimony of Marion's son Michael and John's children, along with the couple's chauffeur, secretary and carer with a vast amount of clips from her 'archive', Wolf and his top-notch editor Keiko Deguchi build a picture of both a life consumed by news and the way that news has, in some ways, come to consume all our lives with its 24-hour cycle.

The argument occasionally feels stretched to the limit, stressing the idea of Marion as a sort of romantic crusader when she was, at least to some degree, driven by some sort of obsessive compulsive disorder, while Owen Pallet's insistent and declarative score proves as annoyingly intrusive as a nightly news jingle in places.

But there's no denying that Marion's life and relationships hold plenty of intrigue - with Michael and her staff proving to be sympathetic and engaging narrators - and Wolf and his researchers have found plenty of archival gems, including early footage of Kellyanne Conway and Jeff Sessions. Also, whether she did it deliberately or not, there's no doubting the wealth of information she collected allows us to assess in hindsight coverage of certain types of story, including police violence. Like Marion herself, the film may be flawed and trying to cover a little too much ground simultaneously, but it is never loses its grip.

Reviewed on: 28 Apr 2019
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Beginning in the 1970s, Marion Stokes recorded an incredible 70,000 VHS tapes of unfiltered daily television. At the time, her compulsion raised eyebrows, but revisited through the lens of today’s media landscape, Stokes’ unusual life’s work becomes an extraordinary archive of television — and American — history.

Director: Matt Wolf

Year: 2019

Runtime: 87 minutes

Country: US


Tribeca 2019

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