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Review: 'Recorder' documentary examines effects of obsessive behavior

Marion Stokes taped the news every day, all day, and her lifelong project consumed her life

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Every day for more than 30 years, Marion Stokes recorded the news. 

That simple act turned her into both a preservationist and an activist, and her life's work — collected over an archive of 70,000 VHS tapes — is the subject of "Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project," an enlightening documentary that examines Stokes' obsession with chronicling the media.  

Marion Stokes in "Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project."

Stokes was a Philadelphia resident who was interested in media, the way stories are covered and the way that the biases of both individuals and organizations helped inform that coverage.

She had a history of political affiliations and ties to both socialism and communism. She was wary of big government and as a result lived in secrecy that bordered on, and often spilled over into, paranoia. 

Director Matt Wolf talks to those who knew Stokes, including her son and her caretakers, to help paint a portrait of a fierce intellect who was imprisoned by her own genius. 

And then she started hitting record. In around 1977 she began taping the news, and that taping became all-consuming. She would roll tape on 24-hour news channels and archive those tapes, and being around to pop in a fresh tape when the current one ran out became her life's mission. Her collection was more vast than those of the networks themselves, and she captured elections, scandals, riots and everything in between, a collection of history that may take another full lifetime to chronicle. 

"Recorder" shows the link between Stokes' brilliance and her craziness, and the damaging effects of obsessive behavior to the quality of a life lived. She was documenting the story, but "Recorder" shows how, in a way, she became the story. 

'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project'


Not rated: nothing objectionable

Running time: 88 minutes

Playing this weekend at Cinema Detroit