Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 3.56.09 PMAbout an hour into the documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project comes the moment we’ve been dreading. Here, though, the moment is presented much differently, due to the movie’s subject. Marion Stokes (1929-2012) was a former librarian whose second husband was wealthy, so she had a lot of time and resources to spend 35 years — 1977 to 2012 — recording every TV news channel 24/7. In this way she filled hundreds and hundreds of videotapes with local (Philadelphia) as well as national news. At 8:49 on the morning of September 11, 2001, Marion’s VCRs were running as usual, and we see a grid of four screens simultaneously showing puff pieces or morning filler. CNN, on the top left, is the first to cover the developing catastrophe, and for a long time the other three screens keep showing their unimportant things. Then ABC breaks into Good Morning America to weigh in. Then CBS. Then, finally, the Fox affiliate.

Recorder is the story of, as the film admits, a hoarder — a type not unknown on the library beat — who amassed information. Marion Stokes, an African-American woman, had seen a lot in her time. Fired from her library job for associating with communists, she took to local TV to participate in discussions with all sorts of people. She didn’t trust any one news outlet to deliver the truth, so she started tracking them all — which at first, with only three networks, was easy. This media junkie, described by everyone in this film who knew her as brilliant, was saving all of this for posterity. At the end, when the Internet Archive comes to the rescue and takes a truckload of tapes off her son’s hands, we sigh in relief — Marion’s work of 35 years is going to someone who knows what to do with it.

Of course, Marion’s work is useful beyond simply archiving the news. She also captured a great deal of pop culture, if only collaterally through commercials. I know someone, who goes by the handle the Internet Lurker, who has a YouTube channel dedicated to TV ads he has extracted from old videotapes: anytime someone recorded a movie or sports event off of TV but wasn’t motivated to hit “pause” during the commercials, an inadvertent record was made of a time and place. A good deal of knowledge may be gleaned from observing how 7-Up, say, thought it most efficient to get us to buy their soda in 1987. The hairdos and fashion are a side benefit (and, often, a hoot), but the history of advertising in the late 20th century will be written with help from collections like the Internet Lurker’s — or Marion Stokes’.

The movie is far from a hoarder-wonk’s daydream, though. Its main focus, as established by director Matt Wolf, is to paint this one eccentric, often prickly woman as a keeper of the flame of truth. Marion was already in her thirties during the Civil Rights era, and knew firsthand the importance of questioning what the largely white male establishment told you was news, or not news, and how it told you that. (For the second time in a recent documentary about news, Phil Donahue turns up — here, it’s to make the same point about that establishment.) The only way to study bias in reporting, especially since the networks themselves couldn’t be counted on to archive their own daily output, was to document it relentlessly. When cable came in, and Marion found herself tracking C-SPAN and CNN and MSNBC and CNBC, it’s hard to imagine whether she felt overwhelmed or elated by the thrill of the chase.

In the footage we see here, Marion has a streak of stereotype about her — the enormously intelligent but irascible person who isn’t having your nonsense, African-American female division. (See also: Maxine Waters.) She could easily have held her own against William F. Buckley on Crossfire if she hadn’t decided to move from the camera eye to a chair at one of her nine properties. Sitting in front of countless monitors, she in effect became a monitor, as well — a brain taking in data and processing it. But what insight did she gain? Her main concern, we understand, was to save the news from disappearing. But she couldn’t have had time to watch all those tapes herself, not when the next day would bring yet more things to record. The subtle point of the movie is that she squirreled away data she couldn’t possibly have viewed, for the benefit of unseen, unknown others. And this is not an altogether happy portrait: as a reward for all her dedication, in December 2012, Marion Stokes left consciousness while footage from the Sandy Hook massacre unspooled before her, soaking all our TVs in the blood of children. Recorder doesn’t try to flip that into something positive, and I won’t try either.

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