An odd obsession with TV captures history

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Sometimes the line between weird and wondrous manages to be both thin and fuzzy. Marion Stokes near personified that line.

Yes, it was more than a bit weird that Stokes, an intellectual activist in Philadelphia, taped pretty much everything on television from the late '70s until her death in 2012. She had multiple VCRs going in different rooms at all times, whirring away, capturing the images of an era even long after VCRs had become obsolete.

But the end result of that odd obsession is that Marion had this incredible archive of late 20th – early 21st century American life that apparently no one else had bothered to gather. Marion captured history.

Marion Stokes appears on a medium she found fascinating.

Planes flying into skyscrapers, Americans held hostage in Iran, the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan, that baby who fell down a pipe, you name it, Marion had it on tape, with coverage from whatever networks were then in business. Barack Obama’s inauguration, the Space Shuttle disaster, on and on.

“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” sheds light on this hoarder with a purpose (her apartment was also stuffed with old newspapers and Apple computers still in boxes), but not near enough to feel complete. Director Matt Wolf intermittently tracks her rise from black orphan to communist librarian to TV intellectual (it’s unclear how she made that leap) who married a fellow TV intellectual.

That husband conveniently happened to be fabulously wealthy, which explains Marion’s private aide, nurse and chauffeur, her spacious apartment and where the money came from for all the VCRS and videotapes. Explaining Marion’s need to record the world around her – was she trying to control things, understand life, absorb it all? – is more difficult. Suffice to say, she liked to watch. And record.

“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project”


Not rated

Running time: 87 minutes

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (Not rated)

This documentary looks at a woman who recorded all TV from the late ‘70s into the new century, a hoarder who was also a historian. (87 minutes) Tom Long/Special to The Detroit News GRADE: B