APRIL 23, 2020
FOLLOWING A SCREENING OF Recorder in Santa Monica, I clammed up when it was time for the Q-and-A. It was a Thursday evening at the Nuart, when the eccentrics of the Westside, the greatest supporters of the remaining independent movie theaters, leave their dens and make their way to the movies with a plastic bag full of peanuts and M&Ms. And they always have a question (or monologue) teed up for the Q-and-A. One such man’s ramblings ended with the blunt query, “Does time really matter?” This question was apropos but still odd, given that film makes a pretty strong case for the affirmative. Not only does time matter, but the documentation of its passing is equally critical. That said, I imagine the film’s subject, Marion Stokes, an eccentric herself, fitting in quite well among the crowd and asking a similar question.
Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project by documentarian Matt Wolf presents the life’s work of TV producer, librarian, activist, and intellectual Marion Stokes, who recorded live TV 24/7 for 30 years, accumulating 70,000 VHS tapes with over 400,000 hours of footage. She began this project — habit — obsession — in 1979 during the news coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis that precipitated our current 24-hour news cycle. As a woman of color, product of foster care, civil rights and communist activist, and librarian, Stokes went through life as a kind of outsider. Later in life, following her marriage to the wealthy John Stokes Jr., she retreated into a life of reclusion, hardly approachable even to family other than her husband. Thus, her project was produced in private, known only by those closest to her: her driver, nurse, and a few others, who were tasked with flipping the tapes, labeling them, and so on. Her staff were not only her closest friends, then, but also her archival assistants.
The film is both a reconstructive portrait of the woman behind this project and a critical assessment of our relationship to media that defines the contemporary moment. The latter is more implicit, viewers being led to consider their own processes of media consumption and the absurdity of being at the receiving end of a constant stream of images and information. Stokes’s project of archiving is presented as a kind of resistance to an imposed transitory relationship to media consumption, in which nothing is dwelled upon too long or preserved; it’s too expensive. To document and preserve news media (which networks don’t do themselves), outside of an institution, is radical in and of itself. Stokes’s efforts to present an unbiased account of supposedly “unbiased” programs expose media hypocrisy and ask the viewer to reflect on how those in power filter information. In the documentary, the frame is often broken up into fours, showing footage from four channels at the same moment. A cooking show is on one channel, a nature show on the other, a war zone on the other, and JCPenney commercial on the other. What she documented was more than the news; she documented what it’s like to be a TV consumer, to flip through channels and see two images clashing against one another in sequence. This experience has been further compounded by the ubiquity of social media today. Advertisements, news coverage, and internet fluff are all consumed within seconds as one scrolls. Scrolling was once flipping, but the end result is the same: overwhelming visual noise. One is hardly able to delay or assess what she’s being fed.
TV flow, a term used by media scholar Raymond Williams, proposes that the order of programs and ads is orchestrated by networks to keep the viewer from changing channels — not in such a way that the viewer might pay focused attention, but just to stay afloat within an ambient flow. Across channels, this flow has little consistency, fluctuating in tone between light and heavy, resulting in an absurd cacophony of image and fact and opinion. But, then again, maybe that is the point: a deluge of information and stimulation that leaves the viewer paralyzed, burnt out, numb. Stokes’s documentation of this cycle works as a 360-degree view of TV getting all angles, viewing all sides. She captured everything, not just her interests, acting out of a democratic, unbiased impulse to provide people with all sides of the story. Only from there, Stokes argues, can a decision be formed. The conceit that Stokes proposes through the act of this project goes against the ethos of the news, a cultural form that prides itself on being an objective, unbiased stream of information. By documenting coverage of the same events from various networks, Stokes clearly thought otherwise, suspicious of anything that claimed objectivity.
The film resists the impulse to mythologize Stokes, not casting her solely as a black feminist hero or a leftist media critic. Rather, she is presented as a complicated figure rife with contradictions. She was idealistic about new media and its potential, while also extremely suspicious, her project aptly foreshadowing its perils. Stokes had spent much of her life fighting for progress and change and her idealism had run out; also likely related to her activism, Stokes witnessed the sluggish pace at which that change can occur. Wolf’s film leads the viewer to witness footage of police brutality spanning decades — images that could just as easily be from today as from 30 years ago — such that the plodding pace of progress is really felt. Stokes mistrusted many, and she was not the leader of a movement or group. She worked very much in solitude, only really trusting herself and fiercely protecting her autonomy. Even when TiVo became accessible, Stokes refused to use it for her project, distrusting the third-party service that would mediate her project. She favored analog, where she felt there could be no interference.
Although Stokes was active in fighting for social justice, her political views were often murky. Her leftist activism in the mid-1960s resulted in the FBI starting a file on her, and she was fired from her position as a librarian because of her involvement with the Communist Party. She was an evangelical supporter of Apple in its early days, purchasing and hoarding every Apple product as it was released. A cynical chuckle hovered in the audience at the point of the film which featured a 1984 advertisement for the Apple Macintosh computer. In a dramatization of the Orwell novel 1984, identical figures (vacant eyes, dressed in gray) are herded like sheep to a large screen where their overlord addresses them. His speech is interrupted by an athletic woman who hurls a weight at the screen which causes it to explode, opening a vortex of beaming light. Text appears on the screen: “On January 24th, Apple Computer will introduce Macintosh. And you’ll see why 1984 won’t be like ‘1984.’” In this commercial, Apple proposes an optimistic future in which the age of information democratizes knowledge and resists the very tech oligarchs Silicon Valley would end up producing. Stokes, like many, had high hopes about Apple’s promises to make information more accessible than ever before, to connect cultures, and to expand minds. Many Silicon Valley icons at the time shared this view, coming out of the 1960s and ’70s with a hippie, peace-and-love desire for change and individualism — the twisted irony being that what Apple is today is something Stokes would have opposed heartily: one of the largest corporations in the world, with a growing monopoly on information and personal data. As is made apparent through the format of her work, Stokes strove to maintain ideological and political agnosticism in her project, interested instead in the functions of media to sway public opinion. Beginning in the late 1960s she participated in and produced a talk show on local cable with her husband; titled Input, the series staged current affairs discussions between people from different fields and backgrounds, the roundtable format emphasizing the importance of community and open dialogue. It seems Stokes valued above all else the right to freedom, to think and speak freely, and access to information and knowledge.
The film’s triumphant climax comes when the footage is acquired by The Internet Archive in San Francisco. The tapes are collected and sent to the archive to be digitized, cataloged, and eventually to be made available to the public. This is the project’s greatest strength and contribution: preserving an archive of this size and type is rare due to its expense, seemingly benign content, or simply not possible given its outdated format. Wolf emphasizes this moment in a clever meta-maneuver, with the acquisition of the tapes announced via a news broadcast reporting on it. This moment was rather poignant: how funny to be moved by an institutional acquisition. It’s depressing to realize there is no commercial incentive to preserve or document this kind of material and so they rarely are saved for posterity. This endeavor is left to people like Stokes, eccentrics who go rogue in the name of freedom. In this way, Stokes’s project makes a compelling case for the significance of guerrilla archiving as an essential part of the historical process, particularly when handled by individuals outside of an institutional structure.
At a time when truth is under threat and media occupies more and more of our attention, this film is crucial. With new streaming services, we are led by an algorithm to watch certain things; to come across content outside of your algorithm requires a concerted effort. Rarely are things organized alphabetically or by year, but rather by “what you might like…” code for “what you might buy.” The insidious infringements on our freedom are apparent in the media outlets, as decisions are increasingly being made for us by platforms that profess convenience and access. The film simulates the passing of decades through images and video. The viewer is flown through years, and the fluctuation of events and cultural and political shifts is dramatic, while the continuities can be even more startling. Some might characterize Stokes’s activities as hoarding, a compulsive act performed by eccentrics and neurotics unable to let go of things. But others might consider her practice one of radical historiography, Stokes’s fundamental project being one of liberation: of truth, of knowledge, and, ultimately, of people.