By: Scott Foundas
In 1972, Mark Moskowitz picked up Dow Mossman's novel The Stones of Summer and was stymied by its 600-page length, the density of its prose. He didn't think about the book again for another 25 years, when he picked it up and couldn't put it down. This time, he found a text that made a deep personal connection, so much so that he immediately tried to track down the author's other works. But there didn't seem to be anything, and the idea for a film was born -- a film about the power of literature, the obscurity of genius and the enormous demands of art. That film, Stone Reader, is a debut of enormous craft, surety and resourcefulness --- a superlative, soul-baring non-fiction work that will generate torrential word-of-mouth among auds lucky enough to catch it. Film deserves major fest placement and the attention of a nurturing distrib willing to take the long view. The winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at this year's Slamdance Film Festival, pic will receive its L.A. premiere on Feb. 6 as part of the American Cinematheque's Best of Slamdance program.
A graduate of the legendary Iowa University Writers' Workshop, Mossman wrote his only novel at the age of 25. Published by the minor Bobbs-Merrill press, the book nevertheless received enthusiasm from the likes of C.D.B. Bryant and William Cotter Murray (Mossman's mentor at the Workshop), and a glowing review by John Seelye in The New York Times Book Review. But Stones never made the bestseller list and faded into obscurity. And when the book went, it seemed to take Mossman with it.
Moskowitz sets out on a quest to uncover what happened, armed with few leads and the admission that he may never find his subject. (He can't even discover if Mossman is still alive.) So, the purpose of making the film becomes twofold: to find Mossman, but also to talk about all the great, lost American books, and why they became that way.
Over many visits by Moskowitz to a who's who of literary insiders, there is the incanting of titles, like Point of No Return and The View From Pompey's Head, that burned brightly but briefly in American literature and are now fossilized. Nearly everyone Moskowitz meets seems intrigued by Mossman too, though none have any recollection of the author or his book.
Undeterred, Moskowitz continues, deepening and personalizing what's on screen so that the film becomes, among other things, a testament to his lifelong habit of reading. He pays a lovely visit to his neighborhood library with a childhood friend (they used to trade Hardy Boys mysteries), pondering whether reading might someday (or perhaps already has) become a rumored, rarefied pastime. Later, he is elated when his son receives the latest Harry Potter novel in a FedEx delivery box.
There's also an investigation into "one and done" writers, like Mossman, Ralph Ellison and J.D. Salinger. Eventually, valuable clues emerge, and Stone Reader becomes riveting detective work. There's a real rush and immediacy to Moskowitz's technique: each telephone query, every in-person encounter is captured from frame one; no action is staged. In many cases, Moskowitz doesn't even ask his subjects about Mossman until well into the interview, so that they (and we) are always on the verge of being surprised.
Moskowitz could have stopped there and let that be that. But instead, he lets Stone Reader unfold slowly, novelistically. Moskowitz is as apt to train his camera on an unfettered Colorado landscape, or the Rockwellian image of his son moving through a county fair, as on a library bookshelf. For Stone Reader is a dance between form and content. Like The Stones of Summer, it's a first-time, out-of-the-gate magnum opus. Moskowitz makes a compelling case for The Stones of Summer as a generation defining work -- a sweeping study of adolescence, a Proustian tilling of memory. He sends copies to friends, some of whom like it, albeit not as much as he does, some of whom don't get it at all. Does Moskowitz ever find Mossman? What's marvelous about Stone Reader is watching Moskowitz find what he is really looking for -- his film. That film is about the interaction between reader and writer that takes place not in the "real world," but in the space between the eye and the mind. By reading Stones, Moskowitz has actually "found" Mossman before his physical journey ever begins.
Above all, Stone Reader concerns the death of a culture, but there's nothing cynical or hard-nosed about Moskowitz's stance. Rather, the film is an advocacy not just of the importance of reading, but of taking the time to soak up time passing by, so that future Dow Mossmans might tell the defining stories of this generation to the next.