On Monday, PBS aired Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, a documentary by Matt Wolf (Spaceship Earth) exploring the life and work of Marion Stokes. Stokes is perhaps best known for the vast archive of more than 70,000 VHS and Betamax tapes she left behind after recording TV round the clock for about 35 years, starting in 1997 and until her death in 2012.
In addition to being a maverick archivist, Stokes was an activist, a TV panelist, and a former member of the Communist Party. Hers was a fascinating life ripe for documentary, which Wolf enhances with clips from her archive. There’s an especially deft split-screen sequence of four different morning shows learning of and reporting out the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center the morning of September 11, 2001. The documentary is at its best when it contrasts how Stokes’s recording was received at the time versus how the value of her work has appreciated. “The difference between a hoarder and a collector is what value someone else finds in what they’ve got,” explains her son, Michael Metelits, in an interview.
Television historian Lynn Spiegel explains that no one questions when a museum or university starts assembling a collection, but when a single person does (in particular a woman), she’s considered an outlier. “We shouldn’t ascribe rationality to those in power and irrationality to those without it,” concludes Spiegel. Stokes believed that information was power, and according to one interview subject in the doc, being able to store knowledge and potentially share it with people “struck her democratic sensibilities.” As one Recorder interview subject notes, “All archives create futures.”
The resulting archive is unsurpassed, teeming with information and content that would have been inaccessible to the general public, if not lost forever, depending on how a TV network handles its own archives. The Internet Archive acquired Stokes’s collection after her death and has begun digitizing it, and uploading it to its site (albeit slowly). There’s never been a better time to understand her genius, and according to Wolf, the film will be streaming on PBS’s site for the rest of the week. Get into it.