“People always ask why,” Michael Metelits admits at the start of this meticulously composed, emotionally haunting documentary about his mother, Marion Stokes.
“Why did she do it?”
The “it” is simple: over the course of 30 years, Stokes recorded TV news around the clock on multiple channels, in multiple rooms, until she amassed an archive of 70,000 VHS tapes. But the “why”? That’s not so easy. There will be as many opinions as there were people who observed her life — and now, with “Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project,” that includes us.
In fact, it was mutability itself that first inspired Stokes. As a fiercely private black woman in politics in the mid-20th century, she brought perspectives that were rarely shared by anyone she met, let alone the white men with whom she most often worked.
From the 1950s through the 1970s she was a librarian, a Communist activist, and a host of a cable talk show in Philadelphia. She was adopted as a child and given little information about her birth family, spurned by the Cuban leaders she courted, tracked by the FBI, estranged from children who tried to know her, and increasingly isolated in the expensive Rittenhouse Square apartments she shared with her TV co-host after her first husband left her.
But as Stokes withdrew physically, the world opened up in other ways. In 1977, the first VHS recorder was sold in the US. Two years later, the Iran hostage crisis sparked the beginning of the contemporary news cycle. Stokes and her many TVs — spread across several homes, thanks in part to her wise investment in $7 Apple shares — were there to capture the entire evolution.
It’s certainly curious that the first people to be interviewed in a movie about a former Communist activist are her chauffeur, secretary, and caretaker. Meanwhile, in looking back on their marriage, her ex-husband expresses a view that seems to be common among her family: “Marion was extraordinarily, indescribably loyal to her own preferences and tendencies and beliefs.”
But as with any important story, there are several layers here. And in contrast to most news coverage, multiple outlooks are examined and balanced, to give viewers a choice of perspectives. We also see fascinating footage of her confidently debating colleagues on her television show. So depending on who’s talking, Stokes is prescient, brilliant, kind, cruel, communal, controlling or mentally ill. Sometimes, she seems to be many of those things all at once.
Director Matt Wolf (“Teenage”) and his outstanding editor, Keiko Deguchi (“We the Animals”), do create a riveting sketch of a complex woman. (The intermittent historical recreations of her life are an uncommon misstep.) But they keep pulling back until we see another vision altogether, one that brings to mind the pixelated, big-picture work of artist Chuck Close.
The 1980 birth of CNN; breathless updates on OJ Simpson’s trial; real-time reportage of 9/11; the analysis of the Sandy Hook school shooting Stokes was watching when she died: within all the images she collected is, of course, a multi-generational portrait of a nation itself.
Stokes recorded every story she possibly could, from 1977 to 2012. By then, it had become a lot easier to chronicle both the minutiae and the magnitude of life in the 21st century. But has that been an improvement? Wolf leaves it to his audience to decide, after gently pushing us past any instinctual answers.