One of the most poignant and melancholy moments in Close Encounters of the Third Kind is Richard Dreyfuss sculpting his mashed potatoes in the shape of Devil’s Tower. “This means something. It’s important,” he says through tears, his wife and three kids realizing that “there’s something a little strange with Dad.”
It’s a raw scene of self-awareness for someone who is in dire need of psychological help. He doesn’t get it, of course, because Close Encounters is a popcorn movie, and he’s only acting this way because aliens have implanted a call to adventure in his psyche. Race to the mountain, Richard Dreyfuss, and be an ambassador in space!
Real life doesn’t work like a Steven Spielberg movie. In real life, obsession, even one with noble origins, can tear families apart and ruin lives. There is no twist at the end proving that blocking off the rest of the world to pursue an inexplicable goal is actually the right choice, even if there’s a silver lining.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Story, a documentary by Matt Wolf debuting at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival (and hitting other spots around the country this spring and summer), sits in an unusual midway between the Pollyanna-ish Close Encounters scenario and the all-too-familiar “someone is losing their mind” tragedy of reality. For Marion Stokes, the crippling effect of obsession began with 1970s public affairs television and the rise of VHS technology.
Stokes was an African-American woman in Philadelphia, working as a librarian and traveling in extreme leftist circles. The documentary doesn’t tell us much about her early life, but we know she was put up for adoption by her mother, who kept and raised later children. Marion interpreted this as a betrayal, perhaps sparking a fundamental paranoia.
Eloquent and sharp, Stokes was courted by the local branch of the Communist party and actually tried to emigrate to Cuba with her first husband and their son, Michael Metelits, who acts as a witness for much of Recorder.
Marion returned to Philadelphia and ended up as a panelist on a local news show called Input. Clips of Input will look completely alien to people brought up on the Two Minutes Hate-style rancor of programs like Hannity. People from vastly different perspectives would talk and, calmly, try to find common ground. The anchor of the show was a kind-hearted, extremely wealthy man named John Stoaks. As the two exchanged ideas, Marion and the married Stokes fell in love, and he left his family to marry her.
The couple and Michael moved into a building on Rittenhouse Square (the poshest address in Philadelphia) and, with newfound riches, Marion bought an early Betamax machine. (Note: Wolf’s documentary, which is very juicy and propulsive, is, for God knows what reason, extremely convoluted on its timeline, so any vagueness comes from the movie’s own pitfalls.)
The very liberal-minded Marion starts taping Star Trek reruns because she loves the utopian society of the United Federation of Planets. But word on the Iran Hostage Crisis in 1979 triggers something in her. She is extremely untrusting of the “official” story coming from domestic news outlets. She is certain that facts from early reports don’t jibe with later ones. Specifically, whether or not CIA operatives were among those taken hostage. Whereas most people would just have a sense of unease and ask “hey, don’t you remember them saying on the TV that there were CIA guys there, but now you don’t hear it so much anymore?” Marion took action. She was an early adopter of technology to capture and preserve the flow of information for further review. She started recording everything.
As the Iran saga captured Marion’s attention, television news saw a dramatic shift in style. The crisis birthed Ted Koppel’s Nightline, which did well in the ratings opposite American icon Johnny Carson. TV viewers of the era saw same story every night — Iran and only Iran — but from a different angle. The prime-time drama, with unexpected twists and new characters, lasted close to 450 days.
Other channels copied the style, and a 24-hour news channel, CNN, launched. Marion, in turn, bought more televisions and truckloads of tapes. She eventually stopped speaking to her son and created a barrier between her husband and his daughters. Her focus was the recordings. Finding something that most people wouldn’t see.
Fueling the obsession was a kind of altruism. No one else was collecting the footage — certainly not anyone that can be trusted. Someone had to do something. Marion took on the task for the betterment of society. She also ruined her life. In the documentary, we see that her behavior became erratic and paranoid, her home overrun and, despite the help of staff, any time spent outside the apartment was rigidly fragmented; a chauffeur would routinely rush her home to swap in fresh tapes when old ones run out of room. She was trapped.
Recorder gets a lot of mileage of playing excerpts from the Stokes archive. Major world events are viewed against oddball, long-forgotten stories. Social trends are captured in amber. In a pointed moment, the film plays a video of a truly repulsive man saying racist things: The man is a young Jeff Sessions. Clearly, it is important to have an independent record of some things.
Most striking is the way Wolf details the morning of 9/11/2001. In a four-way split screen of CNN, ABC, Fox and CBS, we watch as one feed switches over to the horror, then a long gap while the other three live in a parallel universe that hasn’t gone through the change yet. ABC airs a house ad touting that night’s Ted Koppel special about untold atrocities in the Congo that “you won’t want to miss.” (Looks like it got pushed to January 2002.)
The documentary continues through to Stokes’ death which, eerily, played out at home as eight televisions recorded a breaking story: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Despite DVR long being the norm by this point, Marion didn’t trust it; she didn’t want “them” to know what she was watching. Her staff had to hunt for increasingly rare VHS tapes. When she finally passed away, her son hit stop.
The surreal twist is that, while Marion’s never-ending project ruined the Stokes family’s chance for a normal life, media specialists and news historians flipped when they learned about the 70,000 tapes she left behind. They are now in the hands of Archive.org, being digitized and preserved.
Those of us old enough to remember a time before YouTube and social media understand Marion Stokes’ drive in a way that, I think, a younger generation can not. Can you imagine getting in an argument about a fact with someone, finally saying “enough, I’ll prove it!” then driving to the library to settle the score? It’s impossible to imagine a functioning world without the access we have today.
The access may take its own toll. Alvin Toffler’s brilliant 1970 book Future Shock, which predicted the gig economy and the information overload paradox of overchoice, couldn’t predict the QAnon devotees screaming on Twitter about false flags and Pizzagate, but it understood how rapid changes in technology could make us actually physically ill.
Recorder substantiates Toffler’s dark vision in news clips from the Stokes Archive. In addition to her news hoarding, which she affirmed would one day enhance democratic behavior through knowledge, Stokes had a different obsession: Apple computers. She collected countless Apple products and stashed them in her various apartments. She grew consumed with Steve Jobs and described him as if he were another son. It’s fascinating when you consider that Apple’s entire ethos is that of limiting choice, a closed perfect system that avoids interaction with others as much as possible.
This paradox makes sense in a story about someone whose mind malfunctioned when charged against the tide of media and technology. Jobs’ sleek, essentialist philosophy versus a maddening drive to capture and preserve the entire world eventually left someone unspooled. Recorder is a fitting tribute.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer and member of the New York Film Critics Circle. His work can be read in The Guardian, New York Daily News, Vanity Fair, Thrillist, and elsewhere.