Film

The Woman Who Recorded Decades of TV News on 70,000 VHS Tapes

The documentary Recorder explores the life and work of Marion Stokes, who amassed the world’s largest independent TV archive without anyone noticing.

From Recorder (courtesy Susan Norget Film Promotion)

There’s too much news. On cable, the internet, our phones, we’re inundated with terrible happenings that are prone to make even the most socially engaged feel flickering hopelessness. Matt Wolf’s documentary Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is set to play at more festivals throughout the summer, ruminates on this modern phenomenon via a fascinating, previously little-known figure.

The film’s press materials describe Marion Stokes in perversely appealing terms: “a radical Communist activist, who became a fabulously wealthy recluse archivist.” The reality wasn’t quite so straightforward, and the film paints a picture of a prickly, fiercely intellectual woman driven by forces that at first seem confusing. Stokes started out as a librarian, and she and her first husband were devoted left-wing activists. Later she began hosting a Philadelphia public affairs show with the wealthy John Stokes, who became her second husband. Stokes’s money gave her the luxury of time, and she took on a project that became her life’s work. In 1979, during the Iranian Hostage Crisis, Stokes began recording the news on VHS tapes around the clock. She kept at this until her death in 2012 — in a tragic sign of the times, her final recordings captured coverage of the Sandy Hook school shooting. Altogether, she recorded 70,000 tapes.

Recorder finds poignancy in Stokes’s obsessive mission, rather than look at her as an oddity. The film becomes a treatise on the power of archival work. With the advent of streaming and the shift away from physical media, it’s easy to assume that everything exists online somewhere, and will remain there indefinitely. This is patently untrue.

From Recorder (courtesy Susan Norget Film Promotion)

Stokes’s tapes were left to her son, who features in the film. Inheriting an unthinkably large number of recordings in a dying format created a conundrum. He didn’t want to throw them out, as many people might. He calls his mother’s project “a form of activism,” and while he acknowledges that she was a difficult person, he respects her tapes and the fact that they were an extension of her beliefs. After much deliberation, the entire collection was donated to the Internet Archive, a nonprofit dedicated to digitizing physical media. The tapes will ultimately be available on the Archive’s site, free for anyone to access and search.

Many TV networks likely don’t have much of the material Stokes recorded in their proprietary archives. Archiving is often given short shrift. Media companies tend to focus on the future, and the budgeting of corporate overlords doesn’t usually leave much room for things that might uncharitably be referred to as “old.” The Internet Archive’s digitization of Stokes’s collection is the culmination of her socialist mission. She wanted information to be accessible, and she wasn’t discriminating in what she recorded. The ephemeral material on her tapes — commercials, forgotten local stories, jingles, lo-fi graphics, newscasters with bad hair — might be the most compelling stuff of all.

While Recorder is fairly conventional in structure with its incorporation of talking heads, it makes creative use of the archival riches its subject collected. The snippets of tapes we see are grainy and often soothingly banal, the textured stuff of the past. It’s not all nostalgia, though. Wolf places Stokes’s recordings in context. In one particularly effective sequence, he creates a grid of news channels in the moments leading up to 9/11. The footage starts calmly, with a sinking feeling setting in as each show receives word of the event. Without any commentary, Wolf succinctly shows us a moment in which the world shifted.

From Recorder (courtesy Susan Norget Film Promotion)

Marion Stokes couldn’t have had better timing. While her project overtook her life and wasn’t fully understood while she was doing it, she was savvy, fully realizing the importance of a then-new technology and getting her foot in the door right as 24-hour news coverage became a giant force of American culture. Stokes remains something of an enigma, but watching Recorder, one thing becomes clear: We can learn a lot from the ability to rewind.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project will be screening at various festivals throughout June and the rest of the year.

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