Before YouTube, There Was Marion Stokes, the Greatest Hoarder of TV History

The documentary about her life, and the 70,000-plus VHS tapes she used to record decades of TV, is exceptional

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Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Before YouTube, there was Marion Stokes. Before the 24/7 news cycle, there was Marion Stokes. Before we could press a few buttons and view decades of history in the palm of our hand within seconds, there was Marion Stokes, recording everything from her TVs for more than 30 years. Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, which debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, is a gripping look into how one person’s obsessive pursuit for absolute truth predicated one of the greatest collections of human history by one person ever—and the toll it took on her personal life.

The documentary is narrated by her son, Michael Metelits, and chronicles most of his mother’s 83-year life, showcasing the breadth and scope of her recording library through a deluge of footage from her tapes. She recorded more than 70,000 tapes between 1979 and 2012, usually with three five-tape machines running at once, capturing everything from mundane local traffic reports to world-changing updates on presidential elections. You can’t type “woman buried in Chevrolet” into YouTube and get the original 1998 news report about 84-year-old Rose Martin being buried in her white 1962 Chevrolet Corvair. But if you went through Stokes’s archives, you’d find it.

The recording was so much of who she became that her own son says in the film, audibly fighting back tears, “You only knew she was dead when you turned the TV off,” in the most heartbreaking scene of the documentary. To put it simply, Stokes was a hoarder. The film gives an unflinching look inside her posh New York City apartment to see the decadence reduced to nothing more than a storage facility for her life’s work. Tape machines, Betamax and VHS tapes lay strewn around her apartment.

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Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

She recorded TV only on videotape, manually, forgoing digital video recording devices like TiVo for fear of the authorities monitoring her activity. But the doc artfully makes salient the fact that Stokes’s hoarding of history was not predicated on the technology. The technology was simply a conduit for her innate compulsion to find and catalog the truth. We find out she was a librarian in 1959, she kept a diary of her thoughts and daily activities, and she read 11newspapers a day before she recorded a single thing on TV. She was a hoarder because she was a lifelong collector of information.

However, simply deeming Stokes a hoarder belies the revolution she enacted in her living room. The doc frames her hoarding as a crusade for the truth. She only began recording news broadcasts in November 1979 after she noticed that key information released to the public about the Iran hostage crisis would change, thus changing the history people remember. Using Stokes’s original tapes of the news around that time, we get to see how reports on the crisis changed: One week it was reported that FBI agents were among the hostages, and the next week there were reports of no FBI agents being among the hostages. In a way, Stokes was what I call an “acTVist,” an activist leveraging television to fight against misinformation.

Marion Stokes died as the Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded on the news in 2012, while she was recording.


Stokes being the singular focus of Recorder inevitably leads to an exploration into the personal life of someone who dedicated so much of her time on earth to recording history to preserve the truth. As Recorder shows in unvarnished details, there is a dark side to pursuing the truth: You become the determining factor of what is the truth for everyone. She lived a largely isolated but controlling life, once remarking, “If I’m in charge, everybody can be equal.” For years she was estranged from the very son who narrates the doc because of her controlling habits and her belief that he never lived up to her intellectual standards. Her husband, John Stokes, was forbidden from seeing or communicating with his family to the point that one of his daughters, as is revealed in the documentary, had to stalk her own father in order to ambush him for some quality time. The truth was what Stokes deemed the truth, leaving her isolated in a prison of her own making.

One of the people who tended to Stokes remarks in Recorder, “If you took away everything, you’d take away Marion.” The ostensibly endless towers of VHS tapes and tape machines that littered her house were as much a part of her as a child she gave birth to. Removing any of what she hoarded was tantamount to removing a piece of her.

She died as the Sandy Hook tragedy unfolded on the news in 2012, while she was recording. Some of her tapes have been digitized by the Internet Archive, a San Francisco nonprofit aiming to create a digital library of sites and cultural artifacts. The organization is looking to raise $2 million in order to digitize all 70,000-plus of Stokes’s tapes. In essence, her tapes will keep the memory of her alive, in perpetuity.

There was pain in her hoarding. There was activism in her hoarding. Recorder is an exceptional documentary that pulls no punches and really shows that history is nothing more than a collection of events people deem worthy of continuing to remember and record. Thankfully for us all, and unfortunately for her family, Marion Stokes recorded it all.

Related: 5 Best Movies and Shows Added to Netflix in May 2019

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