Because its depths appear infinite, the internet seems to have everything. It is no coincidence that the style of this decade, the decade that began and ended online, is chic minimal, cluttered only with what is needed right now. Just the moments without anticipation, everything else disappearing into the negative space of the happening.
Enter into this ceaseless picture Marion Stokes, a thin black woman who led a minor but cluttered history, much of it inside her apartment, before she died there in 2012. She is the subject of Matt Wolf’s Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project, the first and so far only portrait of her life and times. If we were editing things out, glancing up only when the event had occurred, Stokes was instead sitting down and seeing it rise out of the mist, expecting its arrival and recording the aftermath. In Wolf’s documentary portrait, she spends much of her life in front of six television screens, recording everything and scrupulously keeping the tapes.
Her life makes for a pensive, complicated romantic tragedy, from her quiet occupation as a librarian, which provides a sort of antecedent to her obsessive TV recordings, to a slightly louder life as a civil rights reformer who had led her local Fair Play for Cuba Committee, a group that disintegrated after one of its members, Lee Harvey Oswald, became notorious for handing out its leaflets before killing President Kennedy.
Later, she became a producer and talking head on a largely forgotten public affairs roundtable that aired on Philadelphia’s CBS affiliate called Input. The show featured some deep cuts of the decade’s activist culture, like Harvard organizer Muhammad Kenyatta and Gray Panther founder Maggie Kuhn. The show would end, she would marry its host, a somewhat religious man who leaves his first wife, and then, with him, she would lead the private, upper-middle-class life of a retired activist.
Maybe she became restless. “I don’t feel like it was joyful,” her son tells Wolf of his mother’s newfound occupation. Alternatively: “It was a form of activism.” She took to it a little less than a decade after leaving the busy world while consuming the then-daily coverage of the Iran hostage crisis, an event of historical strangeness that would manufacture the tone of contemporary TV journalism.
She spent the rest of her life recording in the lonely apartments of the second half of her lifetime, with her husband until he died, and then with a personal driver and an assistant, continuing the process until her own death. Her children, who were emotionally abandoned and spend most of their time in Wolf’s movie reckoning with the particularity of such abandonment, use this moment to finally turn off the quietly vibrating, glowing machines, which are — by a coincidence that is remarked upon at least twice in Recorder — recording the Sandy Hook shootings that very afternoon.
As a vaguely cohesive visual text, her life’s strange work is not worthless. A good swath of the recordings does not exist anywhere else, including stories made by local news stations and even Input, whose tapes she also kept. It is good also — returning to the sensibility of the library — to have a recording of major events freely available rather than contained in the unreachable caverns of CNN and Sinclair Media.
Much of Recorder is parsed from these tapes and, by default, none of the footage is never-before-seen, though it could have come close to being forgotten. Others are already part of TV history and Wolf (Teenage) does interesting things with some of these clips. In the movie’s most visually impressive moment, he draws four of Stokes’ screens — she would generally watch four at a time — into a grid and plays the 9/11 attacks in New York City.
We watch the reports slowly interrupt local and national commuter-driven daytime programming, all while a large-sounding melody by Owen Pallett, a Canadian indie scenester who wrote the strings arrangements for numerous Arcade Fire albums as well as the Spike Jonze movie Her, crashes in the background. Recorder contains some of Pallett’s best work, rendered here as small whimsical faux-operas that lend mystical meaning to the grainy footage of the TV era.
Wolf is drawn to this project, I assume, because Stokes reminds him of other small heroes he has documented — the dogmatically-performing-for-posthumous-release-Arthur Russell, whom he worked with in Wild Combination comes to mind — and maybe himself. He emphasizes an otherwise largely inscrutable sense of public good in her life story because this is the logic through which his sympathy runs.
History would be forgotten if she didn’t stay put to record it. What documentarian doesn’t think this? This elevates the paranoia of psychosis to the very impulse of nonfiction filmmaking — what stories are being missed if you aren’t recording right now? And so on. Collecting years of footage with no hope or idea of putting it together is a fitting metaphor for the anxious nightmare of the righteous collector, always one step away from the raving hoarder.
Recorder also doubles as a grimy mirror to the TV news era, a style that seems constantly on the verge of logically petering out and is driven to stranger and stranger absurdities in its last gasps. Its replacement, the seamlessly instantaneous news cycle that can be dipped into and out of with ease, is supposedly better because it can be kept inside the endless maw of its blank space instead of the apartments of the obsessive.
But we need our Marion Stokes. In news that surfaced randomly on Reddit last month, the once-ubiquitous social media website MySpace had lost some 53 million files in between a software update; an oeuvre of a decade’s bedroom rock and pop turned into less than dust. And yet, a few weeks later, it was revealed that “an anonymous academic group” had been keeping, alone on a hard drive somewhere, a back-up copy of some of the better tracks from the era and would be turning them over to the Internet Archive, the same nonprofit group that tasked itself with making Marion Stokes’ collection public after her death. It’s good to keep some things.