Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The year's best documentary? Matt Wolf's RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT

What makes a documentary really special? If a fascinating story certainly helps, the telling of that story should seal the deal. With RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT, writer/director Matt Wolf gives us that subject in Marion Stokes (formerly Marion Metelits, originally Marion Butler), a woman whose work as an archivist literally sets her apart from everyone else but whose character and behavior offer up an even more compelling tale.

Mr. Wolf, shown at right, tells his story quietly and non-judgmentally yet so well that its final effect is hugely moving and inclusive. You come to understand and feel for just about everyone involved here: parents, children and even caregivers (that last set, as our subject and her spouse grow older, one of whom is shown in the penultimate photo below).

Wolf, along with his characters and crew, gives us politics, race, class, family, love, loss and, yes, America itself, shown in a vital -- and god knows, original -- manner.

Mrs. Stokes, shown above and below and born in that famous "crash year" of 1929, spent her early adult life as an activist and active, unapologetic member of the American Communist Party. A black woman attracted to (if we can judge by the race of her two husbands) white men, she was extremely intelligent and an excellent speaker and organizer, though not gifted in parenting (she and her first husband did not plan on nor even want children).

Consequently, hearing from Marion's son Michael (shown as a child, below) about his childhood and upbringing proves unsettling, even though he seems to have grown into a fine family man on his own. And if Marion's first marriage was not made in heaven, her second -- at least for she and her "he's-my-soulmate" husband -- certainly was. Their union was not, however, productive for either her son or her new husband's children from his first marriage, some of whom we also meet in the course of the film.

The enormous family fortune of John S. Stokes, Jr. enabled Marion to embark on and continue for decades the project that would finally make her famous: recording 30 years of television (mostly news channels), 24 hours a day, resulting in some 70,000 reels of videotape. If all this might simply sound like statistics -- something to be logged into Guinness -- the movie makes clear why this is important and how Marion realized this fact early on.

Through it all -- from the Iran hostage crisis and the Iran-Contra scandal to so many other events in our modern history -- we watch public opinion being molded and begin to understand how our media reflects society right back on itself. Mrs. Stokes may have been a bystander (and archivist) of history, but she was hardly one where her husband's fortune was concerned. She herself invested -- presciently in one particular company that she resolutely followed -- and helped that fortune to grow.

By the time you reach the end of this only 88 minute documentary and meet Marion's granddaughter, you will have lived through a life and work that, despite all the sadness and shortcomings, amounted to something important. Watching the tale unfold, under the guidance of filmmaker Wolf, will make you think and rethink, feel and maybe even learn and grow.

From Zeitgeist Films, Recorder: The Marion Stoken Project opened in major cities last month and continues its nationwide rollout now. Here in South Florida, it will open on January 3 in the Living Room Theaters, Boca Raton, and will hit another 18 theaters now and in the weeks to come. Click here and scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

No comments: