VOD film review: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Matthew Turner | On 09, Nov 2020
Director: Matt Wolf
Cast: Marion Stokes, Melvin Metelits, Richard Stevens, Frank Heilman
Watch Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project online in the UK: BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Dogwoof / Barbican Cinema On Demand
Directed by Matt Wolf, this engaging documentary tells the story of African-American Marion Stokes, a former librarian who obsessively recorded 24 hour news broadcasts across multiple channels between 1977 and her death in 2012. In that time she filled 70,000 VHS tapes and stored them all in her secret archive, eventually buying multiple apartments just to have somewhere to store her collection.
Wolf’s carefully assembled film uses a combination of archive video footage taken from Stokes’ collection and to-camera or voiceover interviews with the people who knew her best, from her secretary, nurse and chauffeur to her ex-husband, son and step-children. Fascinating details emerge, from her background as a politically active member of the Communist party (she would have defected to Cuba if they had let her in) to her savvy investment in Apple at an extremely early stage (buying shares at $7 each), allowing her to become independently wealthy.
Stokes’ secretary (Mike Heilman) and nurse (Anna Lofton) are particularly amusing when recalling the logistics of Marion’s obsession. She would have between three and nine VHS players recording different channels simultaneously and each tape would need replacing with a new one every eight hours. Indeed, if you’re old enough to remember the agony of a tape running out, you may feel a pang of nostalgic sympathy with the apparent temper tantrums Marion is reported to have thrown.
The film is particularly fascinating when it comes to exploring Marion’s motivations. On the one hand, she had a strong political interest and had worked extensively on a 1960s current affairs TV show called Input, where she met her second husband, John Stokes. Supposedly, Marion defined her project as “revealing agendas on the part of governments” – illustrated here with Reagan’s televised confession of the Iran-Contra affair – and also feeding a concurrent obsession with the way media reflects society back onto itself.
However, the film also makes clear that Marion effectively had a form of OCD – at any rate, she was a voracious and compulsive hoarder and TV news broadcasts were by no means the only things she never threw away. At one point, a commentator makes a very cogent point that the value of a stash such as Marion’s is entirely dependent on someone else recognising the value of it, and indeed, it proved difficult to find an eventual home for it.
Similarly, it’s clear that Marion’s obsession came with its own dark side, as it gradually drove away or alienated her various family members. The tone of the documentary is largely positive, but it’s abundantly clear that she was an extremely difficult person to be around. Wolf saves some of the details of her own background for later in the film and they are utterly heart-breaking, going some way to explain her later reluctance to trust people.
In terms of the footage itself, Wolf covers many of the newsworthy moments of the last forty years. However, the film’s clear highlight is a cleverly edited sequence with four news channels in a grid on screen simultaneously on the morning of 9/11, with them all gradually switching to the same image of the smoking tower, just before the second plane hits. Wolf allows the scene to unfold in real time and it’s an extraordinary, breath-taking scene, as you’re bracing yourself for what’s coming.
The film also saves its emotional wallop for the final scenes, as her estranged son Michael reveals how they finally reconciled in the last couple of months, noting that it only really hit home that she was gone when they finally turned off the VCRs.