Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Marion Stokes was publically known before 2012 as a public access television producer, civil rights activist, and prominent voice of American communism. However, upon her death in 2012, it was revealed that Stokes had recorded over 70,000 VHS tapes worth of television on a 24-hour cycle for more than three decades, amassing the single largest and most comprehensive archive of television media in history. This collection included tens of thousands of copies of daily newspapers, monthly periodicals, and fiction and non-fiction books. Stokes was dismissed in some circles as a paranoid hoarder and recluse, as well as praised as a crucially essential activist archivist. Matt Wolf’s latest documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project seeks to paint an all-encompassing comprehensive image with significant flair.

“…we also dive into Stokes’ activism, her life as a parent, her passions and pursuits, and her remaining three decades as an increasing shut-in…”

There isn’t a completely set timeline throughout the film, with several trains of events running simultaneously. While exploring her roots, we also dive into Stokes’ activism, her life as a parent, her passions and pursuits, and her remaining three decades as an increasing shut-in obsessed while recording the birth of the 24-hour news cycle. Stokes believed her actions to be a sincere form of activism to seek and understand the truth, with fears (which were later confirmed) that history would be lost if no one was there to document what was being done and said. We are also treated to a swath of interviews with the select few people who were the largest parts of her life, and the life of her devoted husband John Stokes, painting a vivid picture of a highly complicated individual. As her life became consumed by her project, her contact with the outside world grew more tenuous, effectively causing massive fissures in her and her husband’s families.

The considerable amount of raw information present in this film is astounding, and that isn’t even a comment on Stokes’ archive. Her massive collection is presented amongst an avalanche of personal photos, Super-8 home movies, numerous other archival sources, and subtle dramatic recreations, all buttressing the emotional interviews of friends, family, and colleagues. While the film does seemingly abandon Stokes at times to discuss the context and public consumption of major events that she recorded (including the 444 days of the Iran Hostage Crisis and the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks), it does not do it enough to completely break the documentary’s structure and flow, and works to solidify the importance of Stokes’ archival pursuit.

“…a springboard for a greater conversation on the societal effects of the media…”

Chris Dapkins and Matt Mitchell’s cinematography is highly polished and exquisitely framed, making even the most subdued moments vivid with an appropriately kinetic atmosphere. This is compounded by the utterly indispensable editing flair of the extraordinarily talented Keiko Deguchi – her deftness and intuition are what gives the film its most vibrant uniqueness. Wolf’s directorial command when selecting material to showcase and contextualize the anecdotes spun throughout the film further affirms his mission to paint the most compendious picture possible, and he succeeds quite admirably.

As the 70,000 VHS tapes are still part of an ongoing digitalization and distribution project by the Internet Archive to preserve and disseminate Stokes’ life work, this film has more relevance today than it may have ever had prior. In the world of fake news, the 24-hour spin manufacturing consent (to crib a term from Noam Chomsky), and the seeming collective amnesia of past decades, what Stokes manages to accomplish is equally nutty as it is undeniably vital. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project manages to capsulize Stokes’ efforts and present them as a springboard for a greater conversation on the societal effects of the media, and what we can accomplish given the right resources and individual determination.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019) Directed by Matt Wolf.

8 out of 10

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