By Alexandra Heller-Nicholas.
There’s a moment in Matt Wolf’s documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project where the enormous value of the VHS archival project of the film’s title spirals is captured in its purest essence. The screen is divided into four frames, live television broadcasts recorded off television on 11 September 2011. Across Fox, CBS, and ABC we see the seemingly random paraphernalia of news coverage interview with Lenny Kravitz, local news stories, ads for Lateline specials on the Congo, while in the top left hand corner, CNN show the footage of the first plane having hit the World Trade Center in New York City.
Slowly, one by one, the other channels flip to the same story. It’s footage we know well, but shown in this manner the gradual dawning realization of the scale of what was happening – when it was happening – is revealed, as rumour became fact, and fact became epoch-defining history. It’s hard to watch these four squares and not imagine the behind-the-scenes discussions at each station with the recognition that this was verifiably something that was happening at that very moment. When all four squares finally show the same story, we cut to one single image from ABC as the second plane hits. “Oh my god”, says the male journalist’s voice-over, unable to hide his shock, mirroring the horror of the television audience not just in the United States but around the world who saw this event play out on live television.
While only one of the many news events – both major and minor – that Marion Stokes painstakingly archived as she systematically recorded television broadcasts 24 hours a day for three decades, within the 9/11 footage as presented here so succinctly in Wolf’s documentary, a number of keywords rise immediately to the surface that permeate Stokes’s “project”. Immediacy, temporality, difference, choice: an ideologue driven by the way that the media constructs and projects political meaning through the delivery of television news, at the heart of Stokes’s obsessive archival project was a driving passion to reveal the apparatus: to show how news is strategically built, how it writes and rewrites narratives to suit broader ideological agendas, and how susceptible we are to these shifts and movements with the in-built ephemeral nature of live television news itself.
From the Iran hostage crisis and displacement of Afghan refugees after the 1979 Soviet invasion, to Trayvon Martin and the Sandy Hook massacre news which literally played out on the television in the room in which she passed away, Stokes is one of the great unsung media archivists of her time. This one-time communist librarian and local television talking head built on her family’s comfortable income by buying into Apple stock early ($7 a share!), allowing her to build and expand over thirty years an extraordinary system of VCR banks and television screens to record, well, everything. Spread across numerous properties, at the time of her death in late 2012 Stokes had 70,000 video tapes that she began recording with the advent of home entertainment technology in the late 1970s.
A Black radical with an unflinching audacity to speak truth to power, through her video archives Stokes, to opt for the vernacular, was keeping receipts on media history as explicitly tied to propaganda. But Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is much more than a simple valorization of a lost media history pioneer; woven through her passion for politics, propaganda and obsessive belief that television news would provide tangible evidence of how public opinion was formed and shaped, lies the story of an extraordinarily complex woman. Interviews with her son Michael Metelits and her long-term core staff – her driver, her nurse and her personal secretary – reveal the difficulties in a clear-cut beatification of Stokes, despite the extraordinary value of her archival work.
Breathtakingly intelligent yet dismissive of those with a lesser intellect to the point of cruelty, she had an arrogance that was often vicious, rendering her love and compassion for those in her inner circle sometimes surprising, even to them. Stokes isolated herself almost completely from the outside world with her second husband in their opulent apartment in Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, and in Recorder, Wolf paints a compelling portrait of a woman whose unambiguous hoarding tendencies made it difficult to identify her enormously valuable media archival project as anything beyond yet another obsession.
Yet with the rise of “fake news” as one of the most powerful political weapons of our time, as so many of the interview subjects in the film note, to call Stokes a pioneer is an understatement. Continuing a life-long dedication to truth and freedom of information and a fundamental belief in the corruptibility of the mass media to shape public opinion, Stokes’s archive is tangible evidence of the evolution of American television as a propaganda machine. Now in the hands of the Internet Archive where it will be digitized and publicly accessible, the value of that collection now can only become even more essential in the future.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a film critic from Melbourne, Australia, who has written five books on cult, horror and exploitation film including Rape-Revenge Films: A Critical Study (McFarland, 2011), Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality (McFarland, 2015), and the single-film focused monographs Suspiria (Auteur, 2016), Ms. 45 (Columbia University Press, 2017) and The Hitcher (Arrow Books, 2018). She is the co-editor, with Dean Brandum, of ReFocus: the Films of Elaine May (Edinburgh University Press, 2019).