For one Woman, Television was an Obsession. 70,000 VHS Cassettes Cannot Lie.



When it comes to activism, not everyone marches.  Some hang back, holding down the fort while their significant other take to the streets.  Some write, articulating their arguments and thoughts on the potent subject(s) of the moment at hand.  Others vent on social media, hoping, in some way, to power-up the cause.  Some activists sing; others dance.  But how many conduct their activism by recording things?

The year 2020, in which this review is being written, is one marked with (among other things) a strong surge of activism. Racial equality has marched to the forefront as, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, new fires have been lit in more hearts than ever.  Born of pointless tragedy, a worthy movement arose.  And you’d better believe that it’s being recorded.

But not by Marion Stokes, the true-life subject of the fascinating documentary, Recorder.  Which is only because Ms. Stokes passed away in 2012.  Prior to that, this wealthy, highly intellectual African American woman made a daft point of recording and archiving every single moment of television that aired.  Well, maybe not every single moment- she favored local and cable news coverage.  But, dating back as far as 1977 (when the first VCRs were finding their way into home usage), Stokes (then Marion Metelits) began what would be the central obsession for the rest of her life: stockpiling coverage of the greater world.  

According to those closest to her, she did it out of activism.  “We gotta get this!  No one else is going to keep this!”  As it turns out, not even the local news stations would maintain their own broadcast archives.  Much of what Marion Stokes recorded has indeed vanished into the mists of time.  At least, that’s what everyone assumed prior to the revelation that this laser-focused former socialist and committed Star Trek fan had it all- over 70,000 hand-labelled VHS tapes, in total.

Director Matt Wolf leans heavily into Stokes’ archives for Recorder, resulting in some very compelling if also appropriately nullifying montage moments of vintage broadcast television.  Blips of news, Oprah, commercials, wildlife, morning shows, and even a little Doctor Who are just some of the many moments that comprise the film’s moments of throwback entrancement.  Like TV itself, they are, by design, both lulling and numbing, mixing the chronically vapid with the deadly serious; the flood of non-news mixing with the urgent subjects of the day; and, on rare occasion, it showcases journalism rising to the challenge of documenting crisis.  

In such, Recorder moves from one historical marker to the next, basking in the aesthetic spareness of their 1970s, 80s, 90s, and even early 2000s newsroom and onscreen-graphic aesthetics as well as the subject matter at hand.  From the Iran hostage crisis and the advent of Nightline (“America Held Hostage: Day 102”) to the Iran/Contra hearing to the subterranean rescue of Jessica McClure to the 2008 election of Barack Obama, the film presents an uneasy unpacking of history as it was packaged and presented in real time by the full-screen electronic media of the time.

Wolf particularly nails the transcendent value of it all in a prolonged segment comparing four simultaneous news feeds from the morning of September 11, 2001.  In an onscreen grid, we see CNN first cut away to a static shot of the first smoldering World Trade Center tower.  Smoke billows over New York City as the other three channels continue with puff pieces, ads, and local color.  One by one, each feed is taken over by “Special Reports”.  Then, in collective horror, the second plane hits.


Alongside of this we are given glimpses, both recreated and authentic, of the complicated life of Marion Stokes.  In them, we see that recorded cassettes of television were far from the only thing that she stockpiled.  Through the testimonies of her former caretaker, he chauffeur, her ex-husband, and even her once-estranged son, we learn that she never discarded a newspaper, a magazine, or even an Apple computer, of which she owned many and multiples of.  But all the while, the demands of switching tapes in the myriad of VCRs dominated the schedules of her and everyone around her.

Marion Stokes on her program, Input.

What is it that drove this sharply intelligent woman to live this way?  One can deduce that her need for control was tremendous, likely diagnosable.  But Ms. Stokes was no quivering recluse.  Back in the day, she was a regular panelist on a current events discussion program called Input.  Through the several clips of Input in the film as well as the three entire hour-long episodes that are included as Blu-ray extras, we hear her speak authoritatively and formidably about subjects including but not limited to racial relations, civil rights, and the basic perceptions of people of color in America.


Way back in 1961, FCC Chairman Newton Minnow famously declared television to be “a vast wasteland”.  While this sentiment has been echoed and recontextualized countless times in the decades since, it cannot be denied that the medium tends to figuratively tread water in a sea of ever-shifting, garish mediocrity.  But then, every once in a while, it will break out of its own box.  For example, the 2009-2015 sitcom Community, on which the meta-leaning character Abed (played by Danny Pudi) leveled this thoughtful defense:  “There is skill to it… TV defeats its own purpose when it’s pushing an agenda, or trying to defeat other TV or being proud or ashamed of itself for existing. It’s TV, it’s comfort. It’s a friend you’ve known so well, and for so long you just let it be with you.”  Marion Stokes, on some internalized level, seemed to have understood this- even as her thirst to control, harness, and collect every aspect of her world overwhelmed her and her family.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is an excellent film in its assembly, subject matter, and accomplishment.  As director Matt Wolf states on his fine audio commentary track, only a small fraction of the overall glut of footage was even able to be reviewed for use in this film.  Out of the 70,000 VHS tapes, he cherry-picked 100.  Even then, he was dealing with 700 hours of content.  In that alone, Recorder is something of a Herculean undertaking.  But for Wolf, all that time watching TV paid off.  Recorder presents a complex and heretofore unresolved portrait of a very complicated woman.  And from there, it grants powerful and provocative mediation on the past forty-plus years of broadcast news and culture, and the medium by which it arrives.  Unlike most television, Recorder strikes a chord that quietly resonates long afterwards.

These days of course, things are different.  Today, the revolution is not only being televised, it is being recorded.  In that regard, perhaps Marion Stokes, in all her eccentricity, was ahead of the curve.