Media noise obscures the point of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

    1 of 2 2 of 2

      A documentary by Matt Wolf. Rating unavailable

      These days, there are many ways to gather news—true, false, and everything in between. But four decades ago, most people read newspapers and watched TV for their data points. Marion Stokes, the subject of this fascinating if necessarily frustrating documentary, looked into her sources a little more deeply, or at least more obsessively, since she took on the task of recording everything she saw, and more.

      Born poor and adopted out, Marion was a genuine bootstraps hero: a black woman who secured a great education and worked as a librarian before producing local television shows, in Philadelphia. Archivism and TV would dominate the rest of her life.

      Highly suspicious of her segregated country’s role in the world, she also became an activist, joining the Fair Play for Cuba group that also had Lee Harvey Oswald as a member. She and her first husband fought about her Communism and how they should raise their son, Michael Metelits, interviewed extensively here.

      The ailing husband is seen briefly as well, drily recalling that Marion was “extraordinarily loyal to her own proclivities”. These included hosting a cable-access show in which she jousted with coproducer John Stokes, a wealthy white philanthropist she would eventually marry, forcing him to abandon his previous family.

      This TV-savvy woman was also tech-minded, early-adopting the Betamax format and, much more presciently, buying shares in Apple when they were cheap. When her archiving obsessions really kicked in—at the dawn of cable news, near the time of the Iran hostage crisis—her investment afforded her the multiple dwellings, machines, and assistants necessary to record television news on all then-available channels, 24 hours a day. To her dying day, the younger Metelits insists, Stokes considered Steve Jobs “the son she never had”.

      Filmmaker Matt Wolf, who has previously profiled eccentric artists Arthur Russell and Joe Brainard, here suggests there was something visionary about his subject’s compulsive taping, which eventually amounted to nearly a million hours of raw TV, recorded over 35 years. Stokes’s mistrust of media motivated her to catalogue events in real time, but there was no organizing principle to her collection, and no way to retrieve its information for refuting later cover-ups and distortions.

      Except for a split-screen sequence showing how different stations covered 9/11, Wolf doesn’t really know what to do with it either. Instead, he concentrates on the personal angle, which proves more disheartening than inspirational. Like street photographer Vivian Maier, who ceaselessly collected images of the world around her but left thousands of film rolls unprocessed, Stokes amassed a body of work that left a colossal shadow but sheds little light on who she was.