During the Iran hostage crisis that took place from 1979 to 1981, a Philadelphia woman named Marion Stokes became obsessed with news coverage and began taping as many primarily news-related programs as she possibly could, keeping as many as eight VCRs going at any one time. Her unusual story is documented in Matt Wolf’s irresistible Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which opens November 15 at Metrograph. Stokes was ahead of her time, creating her own kind of audiovisual time capsule, which ultimately comprised more than seventy thousand Betamax and VHS tapes made over four decades that presaged the 24/7 news overload and preponderance of alternative facts we are experiencing today. “Taping these programs for my mother was a form of activism. She wanted people to be able to seek the truth and check facts,” explains her son, Michael Metelits.
Wolf also speaks with her chauffeur, Richard Stevens; her secretary, Frank Heilman; her nurse, Anna Lofton; her daughters, Mizzy Stokes and Anne Stokes Hochberg; and her ex-husband, Melvin Metelits, who all share details of her many idiosyncrasies. A former librarian and longtime Communist who considered defecting to Cuba, she also hoarded newspapers and magazines in her quest to archive as much of what was really going on in the world as she could. “A lot of craziness produces a lot of brilliance, and I think there’s something kind of brilliant about what Marion Stokes did. Whatever motivated her, this material needed to wind up in a situation where it could be shared,” Heilman says.
Wolf supplements the interviews with excerpts from Marion’s tapes as well as family photos and videos and clips of her on the public affairs program Input with the man who would become her second husband, John S. Stokes; they worked together at the Wellsprings Ecumenical Center. Marion was also obsessed with Star Trek, furniture, and Apple computers, which she wisely invested in. Much of what she recorded would have been lost forever, made at a time when not every television station kept everything they broadcast, and to see many of these reports now, complete with commercials, is utterly compelling, so unlike what we watch today, following shows and channels that keep us inside our carefully constructed bubbles.
But her nonstop taping and hoarding caused problems with her family as she became more and more tied down to her house, needing to be home to change the tapes every six hours. “I’m sure she came to value what was coming through the screens more than the kind of very problematic messy stuff that was happening in her real life,” one interviewee notes. Described as a mysterious and private woman who was controlling, Marion says on Input, “Who decides what’s normal? I think maybe a reexamination of what is normal is in order at this point.” Is it ever. Metrograph will host a series of Q&As with Wolf, moderated by Lynne Tillman, Scott Macaulay, Charlotte Cook, Melissa Lyde, Sierra Pettengill, Collier Meyerson, and Stuart Comer, at select screenings Friday through Wednesday.