On 10 December 2013, four shipping containers arrived at the headquarters of the nonprofit Internet Archive in Richmond, California. They had travelled by truck from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, carrying a cargo of historical treasure on its way to be digitized: over 70,000 VHS and Betamax video cassettes, containing 400,000 hours of television news recorded non-stop, every day, for 35 years, by one woman.
The collection was the life’s work of Marion Stokes, an activist and television producer who had died almost a year to the day earlier, at 83. ‘She was obsessed with the mediation of media,’ said her son, Michael Metelits. His mother wanted to track how news stories changed as they broke, identify information dropped or suppressed, look at how narratives were massaged and see what dramatic subplots and characters emerged as the news unfolded each day. Stokes understood that the raw material of news was shaped by those who produced it, and she wanted to preserve examples for others to study. She intuited the future direction of television news, forecasting the operation of ever more sophisticated psychological mechanisms to sow partisanship and distort the truth. Her work refuted Dr Martin Luther King’s optimistic belief that the spread of television news, and the horrifying images of human suffering it could bring into every home, would help end racism and division. Whilst the celebrated media theorists of her day produced books and papers hypothesizing the potential effects of television on the individual and society, Stokes went about gathering hard evidence from her Philadelphia apartment.
This extraordinary endeavour, and the turbulent life that drove it, is the subject of Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019), the latest documentary by New York-based filmmaker Matt Wolf. Using interviews with Stokes’s family and associates, a dash of dramatic reconstruction and a tiny sampling of the colossal archive (across a 90-minute movie, the clips amount to barely a third of one standard three-hour VHS tape, let alone 70,000 of them), Wolf has assembled a film that is nuanced, moving and topical. Or rather, Recorder is a film that is moving precisely because of its topicality. Stokes’s knowledge of media theory was ahead of its time, as was her mission to preserve that which the television stations themselves would dispose of. She understood that technology would play an increasingly central role in our lives, and assembled a huge collection of Apple computers, buying shares in the company as early as 1984, the year the Macintosh was launched. Yet, in her last decades, she lived with her second husband, John, as a recluse, in isolation from their children. She became fiercely secretive about her project, fearing judgement or mockery for what she was doing as a black woman, worried she would be written off as a crank. What she knew of the world also cut her off from it.
Stokes was raised an orphan in Philadelphia, shunted from one troubled home to another. Foreshadowing her later work, she trained as a librarian, and in the early 1960s, with her marriage to communist activist Melvin Metelits, became involved in left-wing politics. A few years after the birth of their son Michael, the marriage dissolved. The FBI kept a file on her, and she was fired from her library position. In the late ’60s, Stokes joined Input, a current affairs discussion show run by a local CBS affiliate station in Philadelphia, first as a contributor, then as a producer. Input aimed to create an ‘open community’ of trust, ‘expressed within a context of respect’. (A concept alien in today’s bilious, childish public forums.) It featured a range of contributors from across the political spectrum. Wolf makes deft use of clips from the show, using them to demonstrate Stokes’s keen intellect, tenacious style of debate, and her reluctance to suffer fools. It was on this show that she would meet her second husband, whose personal wealth enabled a radical change of economic circumstances for Stokes. She hired a chauffeur, a secretary, and a nurse, all of whom would become close confidants.
The taping project began on 4 November 1979 – the day that news of the Iran hostage crisis broke, and eight months before the birth of 24-hour rolling news with the launch of CNN in June 1980. The work grew from one to multiple channels, covering both local news outlets and 24-hour feeds including ABC, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox and MSNBC. Wolf uses clips of armed conflicts, political scandals, terrorist attacks, assassination attempts and sporting triumphs to pull the story through the decades, an astonishing illustration of the depths of Stokes’s archive. She shows us the Iran-Contra affair (1985–87), the police bombing of the MOVE commune in Philadelphia (1985), the Gulf War (1990–91), Magic Johnson’s announcement he was HIV-positive (1991), Sinead O’Connor ripping up a photo of the Pope on Saturday Night Live (1992), Bill Clinton’s impeachment (1998), and the shooting of Trayvon Martin (2012). For a sequence covering the morning of the 9/11 attacks, Wolf splits the screen in four to show how ABC, CNN, Fox and CBS cover the breaking news. CNN is there first, with a live shot of smoke pouring from the first tower. The other channels continue with their normal programming. After some minutes, ABC, then CBS, and finally a sluggish Fox, join in. The juxtaposition of morning aerobics with the World Trade Center in flames is stark.
Stokes’s project gradually became more difficult to undertake over the years, especially as videotape itself became scarce. As the Internet redistributed and re-filtered news across a multitude of platforms, television’s importance as the locus of information power waned. The taping carried through until Stokes’s death on 14 December 2012, when news of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre broke. ‘That would have been a rough day anyway,’ remarks her tearful son.
Wolf draws out the complexities of Stokes’s character. His interviewees attest to her controlling personality, and how she was quick to belittle those whom she believed were intellectually inferior to her. She had hoarder tendencies: in addition to the videotapes she kept, she owned multiple versions of every Apple product released, and owned 40,000–50,000 books, requiring multiple properties to store everything. Yet Wolf is careful to make clear that the distinction between a hoarder and a collector is often predicated on power, gender and social caste. An academic institution that collects is just as irrational as a lone individual. The adjective ‘obsessive’ is reached for with shameful readiness when it comes to certain people.
‘Mrs Stokes was always a futuristic person,’ says Richard Stevens, her chauffeur. She was a lifelong fan of the original Star Trek series, which depicted a multi-racial, multi-national starship crew from an Earth that had surmounted its problems and healed its divisions – ‘televised socialism’, as one interviewee puts it. If she had lived long enough to see Recorder, she would have witnessed a world grown closer to the paranoia of The X-Files rather than the optimism of Star Trek; a news environment laced with conspiracy theories taken from science fiction to ‘feed the base’, to push the ratings, to create simple-to-grasp myths with which to explain the complexities of our helplessness.
Wolf is not a flashy director; his style is accessible and understated, concentrating energy on drawing crisp lines of narrative out of tangled topics. (A characteristic shared by his features Wild Combination, 2008, and Teenage, 2013.) With Recorder, he has made one of this year’s essential documentaries. It also serves as something of a commentary on its own form, arriving at the end of a decade that has seen an explosion in archival documentary filmmaking. The digitization of film archives has opened up subjects that would previously have been inaccessible to independent filmmakers. Towards the end of the film – a film that revels in the video textures of tape wobbles, scan lines, ghosting, and lurid colour balances – Wolf shows a CNN clip about the Stokes archive making its way to California. ‘35 Years of TV History on Videotape’ reads the ticker at the bottom of the screen. At this moment Recorder teeters on the brink of mise-en-abîme: an archival film telling a story with archive news footage about a video archive made by a librarian who archived the news.