LFF’19 – ‘Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project’ Fails to Locate the Right Muse

Marion Stokes may have been the world’s very first binge-watcher. For 30 years she recorded televised news coverage from multiple channels and hoarded the VHS tapes for her entire life. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project documents the life and personality of the woman behind this obsessive behaviour, delving into her ambitions, psyche and relationships with her family. The impressive archive she collated, however, is not put to its most effective use. With the early miscalculation of focusing on Stokes rather than her collated footage, director Matt Wolf inadvertently does a disservice to Stokes’ legacy. It is difficult not to see Recorder as a quaint documentary with significant wasted potential.

Beginning with the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 and extended to former President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, Marion Stokes recorded news coverage 24 hours a day for 30 years up until her death at age 83. Her extensive collection of recent American history features stories of national and historical importance (such as the Clinton Articles of Impeachment and the announcement of the first Macintosh computer) to local stories (such as a woman being buried with her Cadillac). The archive also tracks the birth and development of the 24-hour news cycle. Her home became a palace of information; she hoarded all her tapes as well as stacks of newspapers and a museum of Macintosh computers.

But Stokes was not passive in her obsession. Her habits were borne out of a fascination with the way events were presented in the news, believing that the media was exceptionally important in the way it reflected back on society and guided thought. Not only was she internally dedicated to the absolute truth, she fought to create a space for people from differing backgrounds to debate ideas and still remain part of the same community.

Recorder is specifically interested in Stokes as a person. With the help of interviews from relatives and former employees, Wolf dives into Marion’s personal life. Through this motive, Recorder becomes a mildly stimulating investigation into Stokes’ obsessive qualities and the ways these traits materialised in her relationships with other people. Her son, Michael, features heavily; speaking of his difficult relationship with his mother whilst she was alive.

But this attention is misguided. Although a woman of impressive intellect who had complex relationships, Marion Stokes’ life isn’t as interesting as her life’s work. The tapes are the most striking thing about Marion and therefore ought to have been the main focus. A more compelling film might have been to flip Recorder in its current form: Stokes’ tapes should have been edited together to show the different ways events were portrayed in the media, and Stokes’ life should have taken a back seat, with biographical and personal details merely scattered throughout. Not only would this have been relevant in the context of the Trump administration’s frequent bouts with the press, but this would have also been a more fitting homage to Stokes’ philosophy.

While alive, Stokes showed an unmatched dedication to the truth. Would it not have been a more interesting journalistic venture to document journalism itself? It is difficult not to see beyond this miscalculation. And therefore, Recorder, in its current form, seems a shell of what it could have been.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is screening at LFF on the 2nd and 4th October

by Rahul Patel

Rahul Patel is a freelance writer covering Film and Television. His favourite films include When Harry Met Sally and Shrek 2. His special skill is knowing the complex Emmys rules. Follow him on Twitter @RahulReviews (if you’re brave enough).

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