VHS tapes now have a weird sort of stodgy magical aura. Long ago, they were standard. With the arrival of DVD, they were behind the curve. Then they were totally outdated and unworkable (at a certain point, who besides Quentin Tarantino still had an operational VCR?). But now they’re so old they’re like mystic electromagnetic tablets from a lost age.
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” is Matt Wolf’s documentary about a lifelong African-American resident of Philadelphia, Marion Stokes (born in 1929), who starting in the late 1970s developed an obsession with making home recordings of TV news coverage. For 30 years, she kept 3 to 8 VCRs going round the clock, 24 hours a day, taping multiple channels. She retained every tape, cataloguing and storing it, creating a running diary of television news coverage, from network to CNN to the cable channels that followed. Those tapes became her purpose and her lifeblood, maybe her identity.
What drove the obsession? That, of course, is the subject — the essential mystery — of “Recorder.” When the movie first tells us about Marion Stokes and her ultimate expression of news mania, it sounds like she’s suffering from a peculiar information-age version of OCD, or maybe some bizarrely abstract form of hoarding. She was collecting VHS tapes, but she was really collecting what was on those tapes. (One listens to her story and thinks: If only she’d had the Cloud!)
Stokes, as we learn, was a hoarder in more conventional ways as well. She came from a well-to-do family and lived in a large apartment in The Barclay, a ritzy condominium building in the wealthiest section of Philly, and after she bought stock in Apple at around $7 a share (Steve Jobs and his computers were another fixation of hers), she increased her wealth enough to occupy eight or nine more apartments, which she turned into glorified storage units. She owned 40 to 50 thousand books, dozens of brand-new Apple computers, and piles of furniture. Her mountain of VHS tapes didn’t exist in a vacuum.
Yet as we get to know Marion Stokes, her motivation for doing what she did comes to seem more and more resonant and fascinating and less and less of a private compulsive geek-out. She was a librarian who, by 1959, had become a devoted Communist and wanted to defect to Cuba (she would have, if the Cuban authorities had let her in). In photographs from the time, she has a softly penetrating stare, and that translates, later on, to the persona we see when she’s appearing on a local Philadelphia political talk show called “Input”: direct and astringent, taking no prisoners. Whatever your judgment of those who (like Stokes) turned a blind eye to Communist atrocities, there’s little doubt that she was driven by a sense of social justice.
The marketing of the first Betamax, in 1975, didn’t cause her to start going tape-crazy. The event that launched her obsession was the Iran-hostage crisis and its nightly coverage by ABC News, which was of course so successful that it morphed into “Nightline” and altered the paradigm of TV news. Stokes questioned the coverage — what she saw as the reductive demonizing of Iranian fundamentalism, and the media’s squishy relation to the question of whether some of the hostages were CIA. Her prickly skepticism was, in this case, more justified than not.
Ted Koppel, it’s true, was a stupendous interviewer and a scrupulous journalist, with an Edward R. Murrow sense of mission. Yet the creation of “Nightline” was also, in effect, about elevating a news event like the hostage crisis into a serial storyline: a daily (or nightly) reality cliffhanger. It was about catalyzing the news into entertainment. Marion Stokes grasped that, and she also saw that a serial news culture was in the business of assembling facts into narratives that reflected the priorities of the power structure.
Even so, what’s the point of taping hour after hour of compromised news coverage for years on end? Stokes was a weird hybrid, like Noam Chomsky crossed with a couch-potato news junkie. She wanted to create an historical archive of how truth was being portrayed in America. It’s no accident that she began her project at the dawn of the cable-news era (CNN debuted in 1980). The perception that seized her was that the more news there is, the more the news gets shattered into narratives that aren’t necessarily trustworthy. That’s why the issue of what Stokes did or didn’t believe about whether this is or isn’t a true fact wasn’t about the details. It was about the larger syndrome at hand: the hijacking of reality.
Matt Wolf directs “Recorder” with lively skill. He presents the extreme eccentricity of Marion Stokes’ personality with supreme sympathetic understanding, or maybe you could say a bit more romanticism than it deserves. He follows her second marriage, to a local patrician named John Stokes (they met while appearing on TV), and the two seem drawn together as if fated. Yet Marion insisted on cutting Stokes off from his family members, and she became estranged from her own son, Michael (who is interviewed extensively in the film). Marion wasn’t, technically speaking, a conspiracy theorist, yet she comes off as the kind of person who goes down her own rabbit hole, and anyone not willing to live there with her can get lost. She was possessed by the news media’s blinkered portrayal of African-Americans, but if her recording of corrupt news footage was a moral act, her use of it to blot out everything else threatened to undercut that morality.
“Recorder” tries to make the case that Stokes was a kind of de facto academic whose 30-year news project was a visionary act of research. And maybe it was. She caught moments that would otherwise have disappeared from ephemeral TV news vaults; she created a historical record of the slippery truth that gets delivered by the news between commercials. But maybe the real value of the Marion Stokes Project is that starting close to 20 years before the digital age, it reveals how the news can become an addiction that displaces whatever else it’s about. Even if you’re obsessed with the inaccuracy of TV news, it has still entrapped you, like a two-way mirror that won’t let you see the other side. And it’s the people on the other side — the ones making the news — who are laughing in triumph.