May 1, 2019
by Carla Hay
Directed by Matt Wolf
World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 25, 2019.
Long before the Internet put the news at our fingertips 24 hours a day, eccentric hoarder Marion Stokes (who died in 2012 at the age of 83) obsessively recorded newscasts on TV. In the process, she amassed a mind-blowing collection of videos that museums don’t even have. She had an estimated 70,000 VHS and Betamax tapes—and that doesn’t count the videos that she had in other formats, such as digital. How did one woman get this obsession and manage to keep at it for decades until she died? The fascinating documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” explains it all and more.
Stokes started out as a radical, Communist political activist. She and her first husband, Merrill Metelits, met through the Socialist Party, and they had a son together named Michael. She became so afraid that the United States would become like Nazi Germany, that she and her family moved to Cuba, where they lived for a time before they moved back to her native Philadelphia. The couple broke up when Michael was 4 years old, and they eventually divorced. Father and son are each interviewed for the documentary, and they look back on their lives with Stokes with mixed emotions: They loved her, but they also thought she was very difficult. Michael Metelits describes his mother as very controlling and overly critical of him, and there were long periods of time when they were estranged.
TV was an early obsession for Stokes, who counted the original “Star Trek” series as one of her all-time favorites because she thought the outer-space society depicted in the show was “televised socialism,” according to Michael Metelits. She also had a fondness for sitcoms and news documentaries. She was also a voracious consumer of books, magazines and newspapers—collecting so many that her numerous homes were packed to the ceilings with her hoarded collections. (She had an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 books at nine different homes, according to the documentary.) As is the case with many hoarders, Stokes had an obsessive-compulsive disorder where she felt compelled to repeat the same routines over and over.
In the late 1960s, Stokes was able to parlay her interests in television and political activism into a job hosting “Input,” a public-affairs talk show on the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia. Her radical views made her the target of FBI surveillance, according to the documentary, but it didn’t stop her from openly expressing her opinions on hot-button topics such as the Vietnam War, racism and wealth distribution. The archival footage of “Input” is where the documentary shows Stokes talking the most, because later in her life, she became a recluse and did not give interviews.
It was through “Input” that she met her second husband, John Stokes, a millionaire who worked with her on the show and who made his fortune from capitalism. Even though Marion was a die-hard Communist, and even though John was married with five children at the time they got romantically involved, they ended up being “soul mates,” according to her son and members of John Stokes’ family who are interviewed in the documentary. John eventually divorced his wife to marry Marion, and family members in the documentary talk about the awkward transition they went through to become a blended, interracial family.
Although John Stokes’ money funded a lot of Marion’s obsessions, she became rich in her own right by becoming an early investor in Apple. She collected computers—Apple was naturally her favorite brand, and she was a huge fan of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Marion was so obsessive over Apple products that she not only bought every Apple product that ever came on the market, but she also bought several of the same items in all the Apple product lines. When Jobs died in 2011, Marion had her driver deviate from their usual routine and drive by her childhood home. Why?
The documentary mentions that Marion was adopted as a child because her biological mother did not want to raise her with her siblings. Apple co-founder Jobs was also adopted, which might explain why Marion felt such a strong connection to him. Being rejected by her mother led to lifelong emotional scars, and probably explains the psychological issues that caused Marion’s hoarding later in her life.
People close to Marion estimate that her interest in recording the news began sometime between 1975 to 1977—which is around the time that the Betamax recorder became a home-video product. Her interest became a full-blown obsession during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979. By the time CNN (the first 24-hour news channel) launched in 1980, Marion was operating her own type of news organization out of her home—albeit an organization that recorded rather than reported the news. Her news recordings weren’t limited to national networks, since she also recorded the news from local stations. Many of the newscasts that she recorded weren’t archived by the stations.
One of the best parts of “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” is a scene with a four-way split screen that shows simultaneous newscasts of the morning of September 11, 2001. The screens show how CNN was the first to report the news of a plane crashing into one of New York City’s Twin Towers, and how morning shows on ABC, CBS and Fox were slower to react. The scene visually recreates what Marion probably watched on her multiple TV screens on that tragic day.
Of course, all of this obsessive recording took a toll on Marion’s personal life. According to people interviewed in the documentary, she and husband John (who died in 2007) isolated themselves from their families for about 20 years. Her employees—including secretary Frank Heilman, drivers and aides, some of whom are interviewed in the film—became her surrogate family. The employees remember that any time that she spent outside the home had to be meticulously planned so that if a tape ran out during recording, someone would be there to immediately put in a new tape.
Fortunately, Marion reconciled with her son Michael about two months before she died. Her death came on the same day as the tragic Sandy Hook school massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012. Michael inherited Marion’s entire collection. Although he couldn’t find anywhere that would take all of her magazines, books and newspapers, he was able to get the Internet Archive (a San Francisco-based non-profit digital library) to take her phenomenal collection of videos, which are being digitally transferred and archived. (This isn’t a spoiler, since what happed to Marion’s collection has been in the news, and Michael has given several interviews about it.)
“Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” which is skillfully directed by Matt Wolf, is an example of the type of documentary that can be a true hidden gem. Because the film is not about a big celebrity or a controversial subject, it will probably be overlooked by a lot of people. But if you’re a news junkie or someone who has an interest in the media, “Recorder” is highly recommended viewing because it’s about someone who had an impact on the media without most people even knowing it.
UPDATE: Kino Lorber and Zeitgeist Films will release “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” in New York City on November 15, 2019. The movie’s release dates will vary in other cities.