RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT (documentary)
2019 Oak Cliff Film Festival
Greetings again from the darkness. Yes, many of us still use the word “taping” when referring to recording a TV show, movie or something else. Nomenclature changes slowly, even if technology progresses quickly. In the mid-1970’s, when Marion first started recording TV programs … initially news reports before also spreading to other topics … taping was her only option. VHS and Betamax tapes. This was long before TiVo became a common gift, and certainly prior to most cable services including a DVR with their bundles.
Director Matt Wolf takes us back to a time, not so long ago, when the term “fake news” had not yet become a familiar phrase. Marion Butler-Metelits-Stokes was a Philadelphia librarian and socialist/communist/activist who spent many years, up until her death, recording TV broadcasts. This resulted in more than 70,000 VHS tapes documenting how the daily news was presented to us. The real mystery here is “why”? Why did Marion feel the need to do this religiously for 35 plus years? It’s the “why” where the movie’s approach is a bit stretched. Through interviews with her son, and the kids of her second husband, we are led to believe Marion was some type of crusader for the truth, and concerned that crucial information was being purposefully omitted from broadcasts.
Her son, Michael Metelits, inherited the tapes and donated them to the Internet Archive, which has been methodically digitizing them ever since with the goal of making the information searchable and available for research. Through interviews with Michael, as well as her second husband’s daughter, we come to realize that Marion was more focused on recording than on raising kids. When she married John Stokes, they shared a world view, and his family money provided her a chauffeur and secretary, as well as multiple houses and storage units. Yes, not only was Marion obsessive about her recordings, but she was a world class hoarder. When she died, she had nearly 50,000 books, plus a massive collection of newspapers, magazines, and even Apple Macintosh computers.
Since Marion never recorded her own story or what motivated her, we can only marvel at what she left behind. It’s clear that her mission shifted into high gear with the Iran Hostage Crisis, which led to the development of “Nightline”. We see clips of a very young CNN host named Kellyanne Fitzpatrick (better known today as Conway), and a young attorney named Jefferson Sessions up for a judicial appointment. There are many other snippets of the big stories through these years, but it’s the 4-way split screen of CNN, NBC, CBS, and ABC on the morning of September 11, 2001 that will stick with you. We watch in real time as CNN shows the first tower and then the slow progression as the other networks catch up. It’s still devastating to watch.
We will never know if Marion was a crusader of curiosity or obsessed due to paranoia. What we do know is that her collection leaves a treasure trove of TV news that might one day be properly studied to determine if it’s the foundation for today’s fake news.