‘Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project’ Review: A VCR Obsession

Can one become a historian merely by pressing a button? The documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” says yes. It also demonstrates that pressing a button is not such a mere thing.

The director Matt Wolf has in previous pictures considered some unique, and uniquely American, figures. His 2008 “Wild Combination” was about the avant-garde dance-music genius Arthur Russell. Other subjects include the unclassifiable artist Joe Brainard (“I Remember,” 2012) and the gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin (“Bayard and Me,” 2017). Stokes’s idiosyncrasies, and the nature of her project, make her a good fit in Wolf’s gallery of meaningful outliers.

Raised in poverty, Stokes became a librarian in Philadelphia. As a young African-American woman in the 1950s, she was drawn to social activism; she met and married a like-minded teacher, Melvin Metelits, with whom she had a son, Michael. The marriage broke up. She became involved with a local television program called “Input.”

While a producer and panelist on that show, she met John Stokes Jr., a wealthy philanthropist with whom she shared perspectives on many issues, including community and communication. When she watched the original “Star Trek” series, the diverse dynamics of the Enterprise seemed to her “televised socialism.” As home videotape recorders went on the market, she bought one, then more. She taped local and national programs looking for cracks and contradictions in the official narrative.

John Stokes left his family and married Marion. VCRs accumulated, human beings were alienated. Marion increased the family fortune by buying Apple stock; she also collected, avidly, Apple products. Michael Metelits drolly comments that his mother saw Steve Jobs, whom she never met, as more of a son to her than he was.

Marion accelerated her tapings in the late ’70s, at the time of the Iran hostage crisis, and continued until her death in 2012, capturing decades’ worth of news images of world events. In one compelling sequence, Wolf splits the screen into four quadrants of synchronized footage showing CNN in the upper left, Fox 5 in the upper right, ABC’s “Good Morning America” in the lower right, and CBS’s “The Morning Show” in the lower left. It is the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. CNN has a feed from a camera trained on the twin towers the whole time; the other stations are slower to get their special reports on, with Fox the last to abandon its happy-talk morning news.

By the end of the 1980s if not before, Marion and John became shut-ins, prisoners of “content.” The story is a bit ghastly but also, viewed from this remove, weirdly exhilarating. One is reminded of David Bowie’s extraterrestrial in the 1976 “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” hypnotized by a bank of monitors, or of a more sentient, intellectual version of Chauncey Gardiner, the television-addicted unholy fool of “Being There.” “Recorder” doesn’t explore the extent to which Marion’s original project of analysis was subsumed by the compulsion to tape everything. But her taping of everything created an irreproducible archive that is enlightening and the stuff of madness.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes.

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