One day in November 1979, Philadelphian philanthropist and civil rights activist Marion Stokes felt a strange, deep-rooted fascination — this, while watching and following the chain of events announced on her television. TV, as a medium, acts as both a mirror and a window to our contemporary world — as both retina and projector for our current perception and existence. Some recognition of this is likely what led Stokes to relentlessly record television programs, 24 hours a day for over thirty years, on VHS tapes — an innovative act of historiography via up-to-date technology, an act of capturing and preserving the zeitgeist. Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is a fascinating response to this individual’s creative obsession. The film functions as an effort to document the life and work of another documentarian of sorts, an in-depth observation of another observer’s world.
Wolf more or less employs the aesthetics of television documentaries — specifically, talking head interviews with Stokes’s friends and relatives, testimonies which tie personal stories to public histories — and splices in various excerpts from Stokes’s private archive, sequences which may lead to a reconsideration of what relationship we can find between different audio-visual mediums. In this sense, Wolf’s Recorder also functions, remarkably, as a thought-provoking meta-documentary — as history repeats itself, so to do the broadcasted news and televised programs. Images of political and social crises color the small rectangular space of the TV screen, and Marion Stokes, both as an activist and archivist, obligates herself to keep the full record of these images to make us ponder what might be missing. Wolf devotes his film to a recollection and exploration of this unique form of activism — not merely a “recorder” but, more essentially, a reminder. However, if history and the television still reproduce and replay the same (reshaped) images, we might, then, be able to reverse and rephrase a seminal Gil Scott-Heron lyric, to ask this question: “Will the Television Be Revolutionized?” In Recorder, TV looks upon us, all while history records our contemporaneous answers and reactions.
Published as part of November 2019’s Before We Vanish.