For over thirty years, a woman in Philadelphia taped up to eight channels of television twenty-four hours a day. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project tells the story of how a collection of 70,000 VHS tapes chronicle the worlds from the Iran hostage crisis until her death in 2012.
Marion Stokes was a Communist and activist. She served as a host on a local PBS show in the 1970s that considered how to understand the news and search for the truth among differing perspectives. She believed that television had great potential for shaping public opinion.
Like many at that time, she had a video recorder at home. But when the Iran hostage crisis began playing out, creating the twenty-four hour news cycle, she began to tape continuously, expanding to taping multiple channels at once.
This may seem like an odd obsession, and it is. As one person says in the film, “A lot of craziness can lead to a lot of greatness.” Stokes was a hoarder, and became increasingly reclusive, eventually alienating her son and step-daughters. Her husband and a few people who worked for her were the only people who had regular access to her. She threw nothing away. She was a voracious reader, reading several newspapers a day. When she died, she had 40-50,000 books.
While most of the film is a somewhat voyeuristic look into this eccentric woman and her habits, it also gives consideration to underlying questions that fed her compulsions. The news became a much more volatile commodity in the years of her taping. With the rise of CNN, Fox News and various others, news has become much more prone to interpretation, spin, and falsification. We now live in a world that talks about “fake news”. For Stokes, the truth is always what matters most. She wanted to have all the news recorded so that it could be determined what really was the truth.
What’s missing from this tale, is whether anyone ever has gone through and compared the various version of stories to see if an objective truth can be found that way. Since her death, the tapes have been given to the Internet Archive, which is digitizing and cataloging the films by keyword. (That is a task that seems to me to be almost as daunting as the original taping.) It will be for others to go through her work and tie them all together. Filmmaker Matt Wolf gave a small example of that when he showed four channels simultaneously beginning just before the first news of 9/11 was becoming known. One by one the channels stop whatever else has been happening, to switch to coverage of the as yet unknown story.
It could be interesting in years to come to see what kinds of uses are made of these archives. Will some scholar compare side-by-side the development of Fox News and MSNBC as voices of the political divide among us? Will someone look at the ways the reporting of news has shaped elections? Without all these tapes, much of the record would have been lost. Stokes’s hoarding of TV for thirty years may turn out to be a true treasure.
Photos courtesy of Zeitgeist Films in Association with Kino Lorber