The Information Age has found a startling, eccentric heroine in the subject of Matt Wolf’s eye-opening documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” — a Philadelphia woman who kept several VCRs recording television 24 hours a day for over 30 years, until her death in 2012, creating an unparalleled, unreproducible database of American media from national and local news stations.
But more than its occasional resemblance to a very special episode of “Hoarders,” Wolf’s strange, sad and finally exhilarating portrait is one of radical consumerism turned into a searchable legacy — the viewer as activist. (Her 70,000 tapes are now with San Francisco’s Internet Archive.) From her high-rise hidey hole — where she employed a secretary, nurse/aide and chauffeur who came to adore her, they tell us, as they helped her monitor decks and switch out tapes — Stokes lived out her years as an observant technology obsessive who recognized early on how television was shaping the public’s accepted narrative of real-world events and, by extension, itself. In capturing the telecast breadth of crises, wars, scandals and triumphs with near-scientific dedication and not a little paranoia — she didn’t trust DVRs, the government might be watching — she sought to build something of analyze-able posterity, but at a decided personal cost.
How Stokes grew from ’60s-era Communist radical to screen-scrutinizing recluse makes for a compelling journey, even if Wolf’s deployment of archival tape as cultural/political/kitschy commentary — from the Iran hostage crisis through Barack Obama’s first term, including the commercials — doesn’t always adequately substitute for the central question of what Stokes herself might have had to say about the rush of history as presented by major news organizations and local ones. (“Recorder” does well in reminding us that ABC’s “Nightline” originally grew out of its every-night reporting on the Iran hostage crisis, which would foretell the round-the-clock news cycle debut of CNN a year later.)
And Stokes, who grew up a civil-rights-era skeptic of American democracy’s promise and briefly flirted with defecting to revolutionary Cuba with her then-husband, Melvin, and newborn child, could be a bruising debater when fired by dogma. We know this from interviewees Melvin and son Michael — who describe their turbulent relationships with her as usually stemming from her withering opinion of their smarts — but also from footage of the former librarian herself leading a late-’60s Philadelphia public affairs program that enabled progressive dialogue on all manner of issues.
This black female intellectual would meet her soulmate in her co-host on that show, John Stokes, a white manufacturing heir and social justice advocate, who left his regimented life with a placid wife and kids for what he saw as a meeting of the minds with Marion. Though it’s never made entirely clear how these outlier lovebirds went from public television pontificators seeking to change the world to hand-holding, family-shunning hermits surrounded by books, newspapers and televisions — John’s daughter reveals through bitter laughter having to stalk her father from a nearby park just to get a word with him, only to have her promise him not to tell Marion — Wolf treats their isolating, Marion-controlled companionship as something meant to be, even as it hurt others.
It’s the legacy of her dutiful taping, however, starting with the very first Betamax products, that receives pride of place as other odd character elements recede. Wolf, who cut his teeth on archival documentaries (“Teenage”), judiciously chooses clips that speak to the value of her project: how various newscasts portrayed everything from the dawn of computers to black community issues to the 9/11 attack, chillingly shown in a quadrant of boxes as we see the networks in turn (CNN was first) go from their regular programming to breaking news. The footage isn’t always most pointedly contextualized across the alternatingly fascinating and warped life that was Marion Stokes’, but as “Recorder” closes with how one woman’s private, visionary madness eventually found its digital home, the forward-thinking optimism behind the endeavor is like its own happy-at-last ending for a difficult soul.
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 29, Landmark Nuart, West Los Angeles