January 13, 2004 -- “Stone Reader” is a documentary about one man's quest to find an obscure, reclusive author. The film really isn't about the author, though. It is more about that almost mystical connection between authors and their readers. That is why the film spends so much more time on the search for the author, and on this particular reader, filmmaker Mark Moskowitz, who is searching for him, than it does with the author once he is found. The film also spends a lot of time on Moskowitz's reaction to the book, and the reaction of others to this book.
The book, “The Stones of Summer,” was written by first-time author Dow Mossman in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Moskowitz bought the book in 1972 after reading a glowing New York Times review. Unable to get past the first 20 pages, he put the book away and did not finish reading it until 25 years later. This time, he is gripped by the power of the book. It is one of the best novels he has ever read, a powerful, rebellious story about the Vietnam generation. He looks for more books written by the same author, and finds nothing. Curious as to why this author didn't write anything else, he starts to investigate. It seems Dow Mossman has disappeared. Moskowitz decides he will track down Mossman and make a film about of his search. Moskowitz, who works on political campaigns, is familiar with the film making process, having made many campaign commercials and other film projects for a variety of clients.
The search for Mossman takes years and thousands of miles of travels back and forth across the country. Along the way, Moskowitz interviews the critic who wrote the book review he had read nearly thirty years earlier. He interviews book publishers, writing coaches, even the man who designed the book cover for “The Stones of Summer.” He also interviews Robert Gottlieb, editor of Joseph Heller's “Catch-22.” Gottlieb, former Editor-in-Chief at Knopf, is editor of President Clinton's memoirs. He talks to Dan Guenther, poet and author of the critically acclaimed novel on Vietnam, “China Wind.” He also talks to Leslie Fiedler, a renowned literature critic who wrote, “Love and Death in the American Novel,” one of Moskowitz's favorite books.
In all of these conversations, Moskowitz and those he interviews talk about the waning influence of novels in the years since “The Stones of Summer” was published. They speculate on the future of books and reading. They talk about how difficult the process of writing, editing and revising a book can be for some authors. They talk about burnout and failed expectations. They wonder why “The Stones of Summer” didn't sell better, and if it should be re-issued. They talk about the mystery of “one book writers.” Most of all, these conversations are about the power of the printed word and the bond that exists between author and reader, a bond which transcends the normal boundaries of space, time, life and death.
When Moskowitz finally does catch up with Mossman, still living in the house where he grew up, it is almost anticlimactic. Mossman, like Moskowitz is an enthusiastic reader, and he still writes a little bit. He has an active, inquisitive mind. Mostly, he just putters around a big house filled with books. Mossman is like one of those characters who hang out in coffee shops, expounding on world issues great and small. The film is unusual in that the sound man sometimes appears on screen. Sometimes the cameraman makes a comment. There is no attempt to make the camera or crew invisible. At one point we see a roll of film that later makes it into the movie. Moskowitz is in the forefront of the film. It is as much about him as anything. He seems to be congratulating himself on his analysis and research. It goes on a little too long. It is also pretty slow-moving in places.
This film has already lead to a new publication of “The Stones of Summer.” Will it get the sales it should? Probably not. Moskowitz makes a case in his film for the notion that ambitious novels of the magnitude of “The Stones of Summer” are probably never really appreciated by the great masses of people the way they should be. Perhaps authors like Mossman should be national treasures and it would be great if they got the respect they deserve. Society, however, seems to be headed in a completely different direction, forsaking great authors in favor of people like Brittany Spears, who can't sing well, and the greedy, mean-spirited, bubble-headed participants of reality TV shows like “Survivor.”
In many ways “Stone Reader” is a lament for days gone by, when more people read serious novels, and great novelists were more widely known. The world has undergone a fundamental shift since then. Now, if you want to publish a book, make the movie first. That is essentially what happened with the re-issue of “The Stones of Summer,” and it happened because of this film. The film rates a C+.
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