Ron Simon is Senior Curator for Television for Paley Center for Media, and as a devoted archivist and historian (and possible obsessive hoarder), he surely sees a kindred spirit in Marion Stokes. His ability to understand the extraordinary historical significance of what Marion created speaks to his expert insight. His admiration of her speaks perhaps to something else, more personal.
I find it interesting and odd that Ron sees a romantic love story behind the film’s pained narration by Marion’s long-suffering son Michael and her husband John’s reported fear of Marion learning of any interaction he had with his deserted daughter from a previous marriage. Marion’s son Michael Metelis was born to her first husband, who is seen in the film speaking of Marion’s “withering criticism” and her making it nearly impossible for him to maintain a relationship with his young son.
In Michael’s caring for the things his mother left behind — things she seemed to care about more than she did him, the emotion that was “palpable” to me was that of a neglected and rejected son still trying to please his deceased, controlling mother. Helen Highly Cynical suggests that the only love she sensed was between Marion and John’s money. My impression is that she managed to recruit John into her cult of one. But maybe I don’t understand the unique passion that beats in the hearts of hoarders.
Engrossing as the film is, there is no joy in it, or in Marion’s compulsive collecting. The documentary portrays a reclusive woman who was so suspicious of the world that she secretly recorded using multiple TVs and VCRs and organized her life around changing the VHS tapes — not even trusting TIVO to know what she was recording. In the film, her personal chauffeur remembers Mrs. Stokes by her strict rules of “no talking” and “no touching.” Usually I am thrilled by stories of craziness giving birth to genius, but there was no brilliance in Marion’s obsession – only a dark world view against the flickering of TV tubes.
Savvy director Matt Wolf paints of complex portrait of a complicated woman, and it becomes something like a Rorschach test for viewers — seeing what you take away from it all. Any way you look at it, this is a fascinating and startling film. And Ron is clearly right to recognize the highly important story it tells about modern American history and the nature of television. The human story… that is something much more murky. But of course, that is what makes it so compelling.