Herewith (we love that word) is our second dispatch from the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, brought to you by our correspondent Claire Baiz, who will be filing dispatches on some of the more worthy entries this year. Media hoarder or archivist, crazy or cunning, principled or out-there? What IS the story of Marion Stokes, a wealthy African American woman and obsessive truth-seeker who recorded 100 years’ worth of live TV, captured on 70,000 videotapes that occupied nine apartments? Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project attempts to explain, and given that truth-in-media is one of the driving issues of the day, it’s an important story. The doc is having its world premiere at Tribeca and getting plenty of attention.
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Madge soaks fingernails in Palmolive dish soap. Oliver North raises his right hand before a joint congressional committee. NASA’s Challenger explodes. Magic Johnson announces he has AIDS. The Twin Towers collapse.
Inside an upscale beige brick apartment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Marion Stokes recorded these events, along with every minute of live broadcast television, day and night, from the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 to the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012.
Marion Stokes started by recording TV’s big three: CBS, NBC, and ABC. She added VCRs for cable networks like CNN and MSNBC as they took to the airwaves. On busy news days, all eight of Stokes’s home VCRs recorded real events, reel-to-reel, inside 7 3⁄8 × 41⁄16 × 1 inch black plastic cases.
On the day Marion Stokes died, the day of the Sandy Hook school shooting, her son Michael Metelits turned off all his mother’s VCRs.
Marion Stokes’s legacy became her son’s issue: what do you do with mom’s 70,000 VCR tapes?
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project offers a satisfying answer to that question. Led by Filmmaker Matt Wolf (Wild Combination, Teenage) and Roger Macdonald, director of the of the nonprofit Internet Archive’s Television Archive, Marion Stokes’s video collection is presented as a grand social experiment.
I’m impressed, but unconvinced.
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While director Wolf’s respect for Stokes’s achievement is palpable and his defense of her motivation remains unyielding, he is wise to quietly nurture a little doubt about her motivations.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project has generated a lot of buzz for its world premiere in New York City, where it’s competing in the Documentary Competition at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Everyone agrees: Marion Stokes was passionate, articulate — and controlling to the point of alienation. As a young woman, this slight, intense librarian joined the American Communists. With her first husband Melvin Metelits and young Michael in tow, Marion Stokes attempted to defect to Cuba.
In a recent interview, Melvin Metelits, with thin white hair and a wistful whisper, looks back with a tinge of envy that his outspoken ex-wife had been added to the FBI watch list — and he wasn’t. Soon after their failed attempt to defect, Melvin wasn’t on Marion’s watch list, either. She scooped up Michael and left Melvin.
Being on the FBI watch list infuriated and motivated Stokes. She understood the power of information, as does filmmaker Wolf. He weaves the story of Stokes’s angst-ridden life with her most enduring obsession: Tape it. Tape it all.
Wolf combines artful, oblique use of a stand-in actress to represent Stokes in her later, more reclusive years. Told with archival footage and unflinching interviews of family and trusted employees, Stokes’s life story is compelling.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project builds curiosity about this enigmatic woman, then rewards the audience with clips from the Philadelphia social-issues TV talk show where she met her second husband, co-host and co-producer John Stokes Jr.
The romance between a black, low-income, dogmatic single mom and a married, articulate, wealthy white father of five is treated with three spoonfuls of respect and a splash of pathos, which is just what it deserves.
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The making of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project was nothing short of monumental: taking into account all the duplicate recordings of the same time frame, Stokes is likely to have recorded nearly a hundred years of live TV, from which Matt Wolf distills a very entertaining 87 minutes.
The math does get a little wonky. If Stokes taped all three networks 24/7 for thirty-plus years, with over 26,000 hours per year, there’d be about 98,500 tapes. Were only 70,000 of these VCR tapes salvageable? The documentary doesn’t delve into this, and, frankly, there’s so much tape I don’t envision anyone having the nerve to ask for more.
Regardless, Wolf was faced with a mountain of magnetic tape. What’s a documentarian to do? Lucky for Wolf — and posterity — Stokes labeled every VCR cassette with date, time, and TV network.
With help from Macdonald and the Internet Archive, Wolf came up with “a unique conveyor belt system with a digital camera” to sort the hand-labeled spines of 70,000 tapes. A call for online volunteers was resoundingly answered, allowing Wolf and his team to locate big news days, like 9/11.
In a mesmerizing four-way split screen, Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project plays back CNN, NBC, ABC, and MSNBC as they interrupt regular programming on September 11, 2001. Commercials and innocent banter are displaced, one network at a time, until all four screens zoom in on the second plane as it explodes into the Twin Towers. The images and audio, seen in real time, are haunting.
Stokes’s taping long outlasted the technology that served it. When manufacturers stopped making the tapes, she sent her secretary, Frank Heilman, out on the streets of Philly to hunt for VCR cassettes. Heilman, with a soft laugh, says tapes were often delivered to Stokes’s apartment in black plastic trash bags.
Collecting blank tapes was only half the problem. Once they were recorded, Stokes had to store them. Eventually, her collections filled nine apartments.
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That’s where Stokes’s motivations get muddy. Was this an amazing feat for the benefit of future generations … or a wealthy woman with an obsessive disorder?
If “taping it all” was Stokes’s only compulsion, it would be a lot easier to ascribe social merit. But she also collected furniture. So much furniture it had to be stacked, chair upon chair. A voracious reader, Stokes amassed between 40,000 and 50,000 books. She bought Apple computers. Lots of Apple computers. Stokes read half a dozen newspapers every day, and … never threw one away.
Was Stokes aware that TV networks weren’t keeping “on-air” archives? Did she know (or care) that videotapes demagnetize and degrade over time, no matter how they are stored? Did she ever check her precious recordings for quality, content or condition? If she saw enduring value in her VCR tape collection, why didn’t she make arrangements to see that her collection was preserved after she passed on?
There are factors that give Stokes the benefit of doubt. She was publicly suspicious of the government’s version of any event. She trusted, if not a single news outlet, that an aggregate account, gleaned from independent news sources, could get closer to the truth. She may have asked herself, “Is there any better way to guard against revisionist history than recording it ALL?”
In another prescient skill — or stroke of luck —Marion Stokes used closed-captioning, from the very start. Could she have guessed that computers would someday be able to search her decades of recordings by keyword?
Filmmaker Wolf stands firm:
Now more than ever, the truth is under attack. The New York Times published a full-page advertisement that said, “The truth is hard—to find, to know, and the truth is more important than ever.” This is what Marion committed her life to. She recognized that television is a persuasive and pervasive medium, and that it can be manipulated to shape public opinion. Her story should inspire others to fight for the truth in unusual and creative ways.
As the nonprofit Internet Archive (https://archive.org/) uploads Stokes’s collection, historians, sociologists, fashion critics, subversives, media critics, and the just plain nostalgic will be able to access it — without paying a dime.
The content gives no clue: was Stokes the hidden eye of Everyman, or could she simply not bring herself to turn off the damn machines?
Does her motivation matter?
Director Wolf, backed by producers Kyle Martinis (Teenage, Tiny Furniture), Andrew Kortschak (Mediterranaea), and tech investor/producer Walter Kortschak gives Stokes’s story a credible, engaging tension — with enough of a question mark to keep the conversation alive after the credits roll.
Stokes’s legacy, accidental or intentional, is the preservation of the common cultural touchstone of her era.