The subject matter is buried in so many potentially interesting angles but director Matt Wolf takes the standard approach. He takes a rich story about a reclusive, obsessive film-archiver and makes it into a commemorative piece. He crafts his film as though its a scrapbook, compiling all the moments which we’re supposed to find touching and poignant. If the movie has any power, it’s due to the inherently fascinating subject material and not the filmmaking itself.
The director views the genre as a mode of arranging various elements from the subject’s life to achieve the maximum amount of sentimental emotions from the viewer. The film isn’t motivated by the individualized perspective of an auteur. Instead, it’s a sterilized, laminated sort of filmmaking which is technically flawless but purged of any distinctly directorial touches. It’s about the eerie life of Marion Stokes, one of the few televised black female socialists of the 60s. A once prolific social commentator, after middle-age she is driven to social alienation for obscure reasons. During her time away from society, she obsessively records every television program she can get her hands on, accumulating an encyclopedic archive of thirty years of television. The film tries to mine the subject for a certain aura of mystery, but its a cheap brand of mystery. Marion Stokes is portrayed as one of those archetypical obsessive geniuses whose genius is inseparably linked with some tragic flaw. This is an overused, stale, and therefore uninteresting lens through which to view her life. It tries to tap into the audience’s tenderness for such tragic heroes, and in doing so it dulls the actual complexity of its focal character. The film linearly traces the life of Stokes, inserting the highs and lows in such an all-too predictable rhythm.
A much more interesting take would’ve been one that told the story through the thematic lens of, say, the reasons behind Marion Stokes’ compulsion to archive all her TV footage. Why should we see this as a secretly genius pursuit instead of just another symptom of her hoarding? A mean, but fair, claim is that the desire for the movie was bred out of a desire to justify Stokes’ life. Instead of viewing the subject as a compulsive-obsessive driven mad by herself, it views the consequences of her life as a sign of genius. The movie never fully explains why we should consider her one. So she’s a visionary for incrementally expanding our reservoir of televised garbage? The film says that “only time will tell” how vast her accomplishment is. Perhaps in many years, some PhD student will harness all her research into one footnote on a forgettable dissertation. Perhaps someone will be dismayed at how Stokes’ life’s work amounts to null and will want to purposely integrate it into some project to prove its worth. Maybe a snatch of it will be tactfully used in a viral meme. Or maybe nothing at all will come of her work and it will simply fade into the infinity of media that’s transmitted at literally every second of our lives.