The 24-hour news cycle is ubiquitous yet ephemeral. Cable news networks have so much time to fill, but apart from select shows, the broadcasts are typically aired and forgotten, the footage rarely saved for posterity. That’s what makes Marion Stokes’ VHS archive so fascinating. Starting in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution, Stokes recorded TV news broadcasts 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, until her death in 2012. She even taped select shows and news broadcasts prior to 1979; the scope of her footage spans 35 years captured on more than 71,000 VHS and Betamax tapes.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is a look at the woman behind the archive and her life as a civil rights activist in Philadelphia. Yet Recorder is more than just a portrait of a woman’s complicated relationships and obsessions. Though director Matt Wolf doesn’t bombard viewers with the issue, Recorder quietly seeds damning observations about the ways media narratives are formed, and how the shapers of these narratives distort the truth and our worldview.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project
Director: Matt Wolf
Release Date: TBD
Stokes worked as a librarian and later a television producer in Philadelphia, appearing on a local culture and discussion program. An early adopter of technology, she had a Betamax machine in the mid-1970s. (Stokes became a major booster for Apple in the 1980s.) Recorder points out that one of the first things she taped were re-runs of the original Star Trek. As the Iranian Revolution and hostage crisis unfolded, Stokes noticed how the news coverage shifted. Facts changed over time, and the tone of the news became more menacing, more other-ing. From then on, she recorded all the news she could, and even built her schedule around replacing tapes when they ran out.
Recorder is structured through snapshots of TV history interwoven with reflections on Stokes’ life from her relatives and those close to her. There’s the Challenger explosion and Baby Jessica, and there’s Stokes’ burgeoning relationship with an on-air co-worker; there’s the first Iraq War and 9/11, and there’s Stokes’ growing reclusiveness as her tendencies as a hoarder and need for control pushed loved ones out of her orbit. It’s as complete a look at Stokes we can get through the memories of others, both kind and fair, appreciative but never hagiographic.
Part of me wonders if Recorder could have strayed even further into media criticism territory, though that may have thrown off the balancing act of the film, which is about the archivist and the archive, not just one or the other. To keep Stokes at the center, the media critiques come through implication instead of direct jeremiads. There’s a clip of Phil Donahue voicing his distrust of corporate news sources, and observations on the shifting focus of news coverage toward local stories to fill all the hours of the day.
I might have inferred something cynical about technology from Recorder, which says more about me and current worldview than Wolf’s work. The film cites a quotation from Martin Luther King, Jr. about the potential for TV to educate and unite people through access to the truth. Yet if corporations and government powers can alter the media narrative to sow division, does’t that put truth itself in jeopardy? And what does that say about the internet, which offers so much useful information while also promulgating crackpot ideas and bolstering conspiracy theories?
I think what put me on this train of thought are the first and last things Stokes recorded. There’s Star Trek, a utopian vision of the future in which a united people explore the stars together peacefully. Her final recording, which I don’t want to give away, is a reminder that we are not traveling through space but are standing on such imperfect, troubled earth. A similar observation—where we are now, where we could be if only—likely drove Stokes to action. What a future she may have given us through the past.