From the Archives: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project asks if hoarding can ever be art

From the Archives: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project asks if hoarding can ever be art

In the interest of getting “hard” copies of my work under one roof, I plan to spend the next few weeks posting the entire archive of my film journalism here on ScullyVision. With due respect to the many publications I’ve written for, the internet remains quite temporary, and I’d hate to see any of my work disappear for digital reasons. As such, this gargantuan project must begin! I don’t want to do it. I hate doing it. But it needs to be done. Please note that my opinions, like everyone’s, have changed a LOT since I started, so many of these reviews will only represent a snapshot in time. Objectivity has absolutely no place in film criticism, at least not how I do it. 

Without further ado, I present to you: FROM THE ARCHIVES.

Originally posted on Cinema76.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Marion Stokes. Prior to viewing Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, I hadn’t either, but with the trends that she foresaw when she began her massive archival project growing increasingly prominent in todays marketplace of ideas, it’s about time we all took notice of what she stood for as well as what she accomplished. What did she accomplish? Well, for starters, she recorded a shit-ton of television.

Starting in the late 1970s, right around the time the Iranian Hostage Crisis was dominating the airwaves, Marion took notice of the gaps in reporting between varied sources. Depending on who was reading the news, the story could be interpreted multiple different ways, oftentimes leaving the hard and facts obscured. To study this phenomenon, Stokes used her considerable wealth to run an exhaustive recording campaign in which she used multiple VCRs to record multiple channels uninterrupted for over 30 years. This project remained active until her death in 2012. Per the talking heads which fuel the film’s narrative thrust, this project was nothing short of an obsession for Stokes, one which she gave priority over just about everything else in her life, up to and including family, friends, and social responsibilities. But when you’ve got money like Stokes does (she bought into Apple extremely early in the game, elevating her already considerable wealth into stratospheric proportions), you can afford to be as strange as you want.


And who could blame her? Being brilliant and well-educated often isn’t enough for a woman of color here in 2019, and this was even more certainly the case decades prior. So being someone who found her way to a level of financial privilege, Stokes was not the type to just roll over and let herself remain unheard. Moving on from her job as a librarian, she soon joined her second husband as producer and on-camera host of a local cable show (in Philly!) called Input. The show championed the notion of inclusive discussion, aiming to give a platform to anyone who seeks to use their voice to work through any of a wealth of social/civic topics, regardless of identity or whether or not the idea on the table is taboo. It was this thirst for nuance which serves as her reasoning for embarking on her recording project, and it’s today’s utterly depressing lack of nuance in social discourse that makes her archival efforts essential rather than just novel.

Recorder is comprised largely of footage from Stokes’ archive, intercut with talking heads that include her ex-husband, her son, and in large amounts, her nurse and driver from the later years of her life. As an extremely private, and as we learn, notoriously difficult person, it’s interesting to see how the small group of people she allowed to surround her speak of her character. All agree that she was both brilliant and prescient, but most will also admit that she wasn’t very personable.


“Marion was extraordinarily, indescribably loyal to her own preferences and tendencies and beliefs,” remarks one talking head with a frustrated warmth.

As the film digs deeper into Stokes’ character, it becomes clear that, at least to some degree, she was unwell. You see, VHS tapes and news clips are not the only thing she hoarded. At the time of her death, she had multiple large apartments filled to the brim with stuff. Boxes of documents line the hallways of her Rittenhouse Square apartment, as well as an unending supply of photographs, books, and random Apple stuff. Stokes read multiple newspapers every day…and never threw away a single one. By any stretch of the definition, Stokes was a hoarder, but it’s her conceptual hoarding, that of the chronology of the 24 hour news cycle, that elevates her work to something more than just a single woman’s strange obsession.

Unfortunately, it’s not until the home stretch that the purpose of this documentary becomes clear. For a good portion of the film, it looks like we are about to study selections from Stokes’ video collection, but by the end, it really just becomes a profile of an unknown artist. The threads where these two different films could intertwine are indeed there, but most are left hanging in such a way that both films suffer. In waiting until the midpoint to become explicitly about Stokes as an artist, we get an incomplete picture of her. In moving away from exhibiting the footage she captured, we are left repeating a thesis that has long since been established and will soon be abandoned (news is no longer objective). This is made doubly frustrating by a prolonged mid-film segment where four simultaneous recordings of the 9/11 attacks are played in tandem. It’s absolutely jaw-dropping, and it only scratches the surface of the breadth of programming Stokes had in her collection. We never get past this surface level. And honestly, at under 90 minutes, Recorder could have easily withstood the inclusion of an additional 25 minutes of material, if only to make these two disparate half-movies into a more complete profile of an under-appreciated mind.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project opens at the Ritz Bourse. There are post-screening Q&A at various showings throughout the weekend/week.

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