PRINT November 2019



Still from Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes. Marion Stokes.

IT’S DIFFICULT FOR ME not to think of Matt Wolf as a queer filmmaker, because he’s the first one I ever knew personally. He is also the first openly gay man I ever met. When I arrived in Manhattan from northern New Hampshire in 2001 at the age of eighteen, any notions I possessed of urbanity or sexual identity I had imagined in a bucolic vacuum. A chance introduction to Wolf, then a sagacious nineteen-year-old from San Jose, California, not only initiated my kinship with other flesh-and-blood homosexuals, but also affirmed the importance of an intellectualized communal identity. While Matt has explored issues like these with infinitely more nuance and objective rigor than I have, a lesson I took from him at the outset of adulthood was how queerness is more expansive than sexuality. It’s an identification that opens onto legacies of thinking and acting beyond normativity.

The documentaries Matt has created over the past two decades are united by his ardent respect for those who are, or ought to be, emblematic of resistance and by his masterful talent for recontextualizing the not-so-distant past to illuminate unassuming yet radical protagonists of culture, from Wild Combination (2008), on the life of electronic musician Arthur Russell, to Teenage (2013), in which he traced the evolution of the adolescent demographic, to his latest film, Recorder (2019), whose subject, Marion Stokes, taped television continuously from the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1979 until her passing in 2012.

Stokes’s “monumental” archive, as Wolf describes it, is a collection of media she amassed on a Borgesian scale. Its dizzying everythingness comes with daunting challenges for a filmmaker, not least of which is the temptation to harvest it for pearls to string into grandiose treatises on flash points such as the corporate control of mass opinion and the political wars against fact. Recorder artfully asserts topics like these as prophetic drivers of Stokes’s project but ultimately presents a singular portrait of a woman who coalesced her ideas and her work with confoundingly absolute conviction.

Kevin McGarry

Still from Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes. Marion Stokes.

I MAKE MOST OF MY DOCUMENTARY FILMS from expansive archives. So when I read about Marion Stokes—an activist who privately recorded television twenty-four hours a day for thirty years on more than seventy thousand tapes—I was intrigued. This was an unprecedented collection that contains virtually everything and anything that was broadcast on American television for thirty-three years. The challenge of grappling with so much media appealed to me. This also felt like an unusual opportunity to make a film about an archive.

I knew very little about the mysterious woman who pursued this maddening and visionary project, so when I went to meet Marion’s son, Michael Metelits, I was surprised to arrive at a luxury apartment building in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square. When I entered one of Marion’s former apartments, I saw stacks upon stacks of Macintosh computers in their original boxes—another startling facet of her obsessive collecting. I went to lunch with Michael and Marion’s personal secretary, Frank Heilman, at a restaurant across the street, where Marion would have her daily martini. I learned that she had been a Communist activist, a local television producer, and a prolific and early investor in Apple, and that she began recording television during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which is now considered to have spawned the twenty-four-hour news cycle. She would tape simultaneous feeds of the major networks and cable news—national and local reporting, talk shows, commercials, sitcoms, PSAs—until her death, in 2012. As Frank and Michael told me about her life, they started to cry. I realized that this wasn’t just going to be a film about an unprecedented archive; it was also going to tell an emotionally intense family story.

Fifty-four stills from the video archives of Marion Stokes, ca. 1979–2012.

My main challenge was to discover how Marion’s biography pointed to her archive, and how the archive pointed back to Marion. To begin the creative process, I indexed Marion’s collection of more than seventy thousand VHS and Betamax tapes. Luckily, Marion wrote the dates, times, and networks on the spines of each one and stored them in cardboard filing boxes. Sometimes she would include metadata like “Oprah,” “Jesse Jackson,” or “Move Bombings.” (All the tapes are now in the Internet Archive’s storage facility in Richmond, California.) My team figured out how to rig a camera to a conveyor-belt system so that we could take overhead pictures of all the videotape spines inside the boxes. We put out a call for volunteers to help log them all, and more than fifty people—inspired by Marion’s story—assisted from around the world.

I like to think I’m the kind of filmmaker who leaves no stone unturned. But the scope of Marion’s collection meant that my usual process was absolutely outside the realm of possibility. One of my favorite parts of documentary work is developing a unique process to wrangle an overwhelming amount of media and history. In this case, I first compiled an unconventional time line of historically significant and idiosyncratic events, and then an archivist helped me identify the relevant tapes in Marion’s boxes. In the end, we digitized one hundred of them, a mere fragment of the collection, but they yielded more than seven hundred hours of footage. That may sound like a lot, but I deal with that same volume of material for most of my films.

Still from Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes.

I wouldn’t call Marion an artist. What she did was a private practice, but nonetheless I recognized parallels between her work and the work of artists like myself. She was driven and obsessive; she saw value not only in epochal events but in popular culture and its detritus. She privileged forgotten histories where others would not. I found great inspiration in the margins of her collection, in the arresting and bizarre imagery in commercials and PSAs: reaction shots of women in talk-show audiences or silhouetted figures from anonymous news interviews. Marion saved things that were overlooked, and like many women of color of a certain age, she operated outside of established institutions. Libraries and museums didn’t see value in the full corpus of media that Marion was recording. In fact, the networks for decades discarded their archives into the trash can of history. Much of what she captured can’t be found anywhere else.

The term fake news didn’t exist when I started to make Recorder. But as it became part of the political discourse, the film took on a new significance. During the hostage crisis—which became a kind of late-night-news soap opera—Marion recognized that television’s ideological bias was shaping public opinion. A year later, CNN was launched, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle went into full effect. With this vast expansion of news production, Marion was rightfully concerned that important information was being lost. I really appreciate that she wasn’t somebody who just observed trends; she acted on them. Collecting Apple was another fortuitous, prescient decision. She was inspired by Apple and Steve Jobs’s democratization of technology, so she invested in the company. That enhanced her personal wealth, which would ultimately help to pay for the taping and the staff of assistants who facilitated it.

Still from Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, 2019, HD video, color, sound, 87 minutes. Recreation of Marion Stokes's apartment.

I think it’s unfair to psychoanalyze a subject, especially one who is no longer around to speak for herself. In a lot of ways, Marion’s story is a mystery, because she didn’t necessarily want to be known. Through interviews, I learned that she often valued information over human relationships. I recognize that, more often than not, a “visionary” can be at once insightful and dysfunctional. As Lynn Spigel said in the film about Marion’s project, “We shouldn’t ascribe rationality to those in power and irrationality to those without it.” However, I do think about the trauma of watching television 24/7 on multiple channels, as Marion did, and I can only imagine what it was like for her to take in so much death, catastrophe, and violence in real time.

Marion had a pointed interest not only in violence as it was reported, but also in the ways in which it shaped the systems and apparatuses of media and culture. On the local television talk show Input, which she produced and hosted with her husband, John Stokes, she once said, “Those in power write their own history. . . . There’s violence which we may not call violence, but is a large-scale violation of a human being’s potential, total humanity, and dignity.” That statement moved me to test the possibilities of her archive, so I went digging through tapes to try and construct a short history of police brutality as broadcast on television, which, as you’d expect, manifests insidious patterns of racial bias. However, I think it’s important to remember that Marion’s project was ideologically agnostic. Her aim was to capture everything, and in doing so, her tapes reflect the predilections of those who produce history.