'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Courtesy of End Cue & Electric Chinoland
Intriguing from first minute to last.

Matt Wolf's documentary recounts the strange tale of a Philadelphia woman who spent decades obsessively recording televison programs around the clock.

Do you record so many television programs that you constantly worry about overloading your DVR? Well, you've got nothing on Marion Stokes, whose fascinatingly oddball story is told in Matt Wolf's documentary receiving its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Beginning in 1979 with the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis and not ending until her death in 2012, Stokes obsessively recorded television shows 24 hour a day on multiple VCRs, ultimately amassing thousands of VHS tapes that represented an archive of American media history. Whether her strange behavior was simply obsessive-compulsive or, as her son claims, "a form of activism," is the question at the heart of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project.

In her early years, the African- American Stokes was a left-wing firebrand who was courted for leadership by the American Communist party. She and her first husband attempted, without success, to defect to Cuba and were spied on by the FBI. After separating from her husband when her son Michael was four years old, she began co-hosting a Philadelphia public affairs television talk show with John Stokes, a blue blood who was as devoted to social justice issues as she was. The two soon fell in love and got married, with his wealth providing her the opportunity to pursue her strange mission of recording television programs around the clock.

The timing was fortuitous for this news junkie who read 11 newspapers a day. ABC's nightly coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis soon gave birth to its late-night news program Nightline, and CNN was launched the following year, giving birth to the concept of the 24-hour news cycle that has become prevalent ever since.

The documentary provides copious examples of the programs Stokes recorded, ranging from local and national news programs to sitcoms and everything in between. Some of the clips have clearly been included for ironic effect, such as the footage of a young Jeff Sessions being grilled by a withering Senator Ted Kennedy during his judicial confirmation hearing.

Stokes was apparently as paranoid as she was obsessive. She rejected using digital video recorders when they came on the market, fearing that the authorities would be able to learn what she was taping. Her eccentricities are vividly recounted by her male secretary, her young female assistant and her British chauffeur who says that she preferred silence during their drives. "It was like Driving Miss Daisy in reverse, he comments. Even while describing Stokes' neuroses, however, they all seem loyal to their former employer. "I think it was for the benefit of mankind," her secretary says about Stokes' obsessive recording. It was good he felt that way, since he was in charge of pursuing videocassettes, a task that became increasingly difficult as the technology became obsolete.

The film also delves into Stokes' demanding, mercurial personality. She stopped communicating with her son for many years, and demanded that her husband become estranged from his children as well. In a particularly emotional scene, Stokes' grown daughter describes waiting for her father outside his opulent apartment building in an attempt to make contact. He happily sat down to talk with her for a few minutes, but before leaving begged her not to tell Marion. When Stokes died several years later, Marion was emotionally devastated but never faltered in her mission, continuing to tape multiple television programs 24 hours a day and capturing such historic moments as Obama's presidential victory.

The story can be seen as a cautionary tale of compulsive behavior, including Marion's hoarding that manifested itself in some 50,000 books and countless newspapers and magazines among other things. But it also has a (spoiler alert) happy ending. Marion reconnected with her son late in her life and became a loving grandmother to his young daughters. After she died, Michael was left with her 70,000-plus VHS tapes that nobody seemed to want. Nobody, that is, until he contacted the Internet Archive in San Francisco, which happily accepted the collection that included countless hours of television news coverage that otherwise would have been lost forever. The entire collection is now in the process of being digitized, with the institution's director describing Marion as a "visionary."

Relating this stranger-than-fiction tale with the narrative twists and turns of a well-paced thriller, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project will make news junkies feel a lot better about themselves.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival 
Production: End Cue, Electric Chinoland, C41 Media
Director: Matt Wolf
Producers: Kyle Martin, Andrew Kortschak, Walter Kortschak
Executive producers: Andrew Kortschak, Walter Kortschak
Directors of photography: Chris Dapkins, Matt Mitchell
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
Composer: Owen Pallet

87 minutes