The neurologist Oliver Sacks once wrote a book called “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” The title of Matt Wolf’s documentary “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project” could just as well have been “The Woman Who Mistook Her Life for a VCR.”
That’s an exaggeration. The documentary shows what a complicated and surprising life Stokes led. But it’s not much of an exaggeration. For 30 years, she taped cable and network television programs, mostly but not entirely news programming. She had up to eight VCRs running 24 hours a day. By the time she died in 2012, at 83, Stokes had amassed 70,000 videocassettes.
Wolf has all that footage to draw on and frequently does so. “Recorder” doubles as a high-speed, highly abbreviated, media-driven history of the United States from the Iran hostage crisis to the Sandy Hook shootings. They occurred on the day Stokes died.
It’s fascinating to watch this material in all its low-res splendor. What a time capsule Stokes left. The hostages return. The Challenger explodes. Bill Clinton is impeached. The Twin Towers are hit. Barack Obama is elected. There are also glimpses of local news, “Family Feud,” “Donahue,” and “Oprah.” Yet Wolf relies on the videos far too much. That over-reliance makes “Recorder” feel padded, as does his frequent use of reenactments.
What’s strange about his doing this is the wealth of other resources available to him. Wolf has interviewed Stokes’s son, ex-husband, stepdaughters, chauffeur, secretary, and nurse. He shows us family photographs, home movies, footage of her with her late third husband. Most striking, he has clips from her many appearances on “Input,” a weekly public-affairs program she helped produce for a Philadelphia television station, from 1967 to 1969.
The middle-aged woman we see is articulate and attentive, forceful yet reserved. The camera doesn’t love Stokes, but it certainly respects her. The intensity of her presence is unmistakable. That intensity is attested to, not always favorably, by the various people we hear from in “Recorder.”
Wolf draws on another resource, briefly glimpsed: Stokes’s FBI file. This woman who lived on Philadelphia’s tony Rittenhouse Square had been a Communist, chaired the local chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and for a time wanted to move to Castro’s Cuba. She was also African-American and for some years a single mother. Her marriage to John Stokes Jr., a wealthy white man who was her co-producer on “Input,” changed her life, if not her values and beliefs.
Along the way, we learn of Stokes’s passion for the original “Star Trek” (in part, because of its political vision), her enthusiasm for Apple Computer Company — not just its products, but also its sensibility and ethos. When Steve Jobs died, her son recalls, his mother expressed surprise he didn’t call her to offer condolences. It was an obsessiveness of a piece with her taping. There was a very notable difference, though. Stokes put her money where her passion was. She bought Apple stock early on, a decision that paid off handsomely. Like any good activist, she was concerned with the future: whether as imagined on “Star Trek,” how it could be shaped by technology, or as the beneficiary of her vast archival undertaking. Another title for “Recorder” could be “The Past as Prologue.”
RECORDER: THE MARION STOKES PROJECT
Directed by Matt Wolf. At Museum of Fine Arts, Nov. 29-Dec. 5. 88 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.