by Ken Bakely
Even from the beginning, it was clear that, in one way or another, Marion Stokes’s life was largely defined by her desire to preserve information and freely convey ideas. Beginning as a prominent socialist political activist, she worked as a librarian, and then a local television producer and presenter in Philadelphia, where she sought to bring critical debates on the issues of the day to the forefront by chairing lively panel discussions. But what she has become the most known for after her death was not a part of her public career. Her obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer quotes her son, Michael Metelits, in saying that she “enjoyed watching cable news,” but as we learn in Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, it was something far more than that. In the late 1970s, she began videotaping every second of every national newscast; she began the project out of suspicion of the United States’s angling of the Iranian Revolution, an event which essentially coincided with the birth of 24-hour cable news. By the time of her death in 2012, she had developed an elaborate system of eight VCRs, all taping the local and national news networks. The footage was stored on over 70,000 tapes across multiple facilities. The project eventually consumed her life, straining or dissolving her personal relationships as she gradually confined her social circle to her husband – who was another executor of the project – a chauffeur, and in her last years, the personal assistants who helped her maintain the recording system after her husband’s death.
Her work as a librarian seems to connect to her lifelong mission to collect and save (she also kept decades’ worth of newspapers and magazines, alongside every computer she ever bought), her work in television meant that she both knew the importance of communication and how little of television has historically been saved after its transmission, and her activist roots demonstrated her proclivities to critically scrutinize and analyze every bit of information that she was told. There’s no question that the way she realized her project was rather unhealthy; Metelits describes his mother as a hoarder, and photographs and videos of her apartment convey that, along with her media collection, she would compulsively save just about anything that came her way. Recorder, however, is involving and insightful in how it seeks to balance its biographical profile of Stokes with the actual content of her work. The film is at its best when it simply shows the footage: the way that her extensive library of television can also show how the news media first learns, synthesizes, and distributes events. Typically natural disasters, human interest stories, and episodes of social or political unrest begin locally before rising through the ranks to national attention. However, there are moments when the importance of an event is unquestioned, exemplified no better in what’s arguably the film’s centerpiece, the news coverage of 9/11. Split into four screens, each displaying one of the national broadcasters, we see how the breaking news of the attack slowly supplants the morning talk shows and commercials, until live coverage from New York is beamed across every network.
If the film had focused more on that element of detail – episodes of comprehensive media analysis that demonstrate not merely the information, but how it was communicated – then the movie would advance from a fascinating individual study to something even even more compelling and wide-ranging. As is, however, it’s still very accomplished. Its interplay of Stokes’s life and her recording mission make for a well-reasoned summation of how she viewed the world and chose to live within it. But, true to the recording project’s ethos of allowing things to be absorbed and stand unobstructed, Wolf works deftly, and observes largely through context. In other words, we can know Stokes’s background, and we can know her efforts, and perhaps there is something very meaningful just from those factors alone. The film doesn’t pretend to know what’s beyond that, but it does guide us to a point where we have been given a fair amount of information, and while we might wish there was more about the consequences of Stokes’s archive itself, the outcome is still something to behold. Through her particular case, she created an unprecedented library of news media that, now that it has found its home in the Internet Archive as an ongoing digitization project, will find a place as a potentially invaluable historical resource. But even if we couldn’t ever imagine the all-consuming life that Stokes led, in which she was eventually entirely consumed by the project, it’s hard to come away from Recorder without a deeply renewed appreciation for the act of saving and the power that comes from an ability to have access.