By: J. Hoberman
The docu-discovery of last year's Slamdance Film Festival, Mark Moskowitz's Stone Reader has received much pre-release publicity, as well it might. For writers, the premise is irresistible. The filmmaker goes searching for the one-book author of a virtually unknown, long-out-of-print, 600-page novel, which he alone seems to have read. Indeed, Moskowitz insures his solitary mission by purchasing every copy he can find of Dow Mossman's 1972 The Stones of Summer. (He's not a bibliophile —- he's a reader of remarkable devotion.)
Moskowitz, whose day job is making political commercials for the Democratic Party, spends a year pursuing Mossman, following cold leads, grasping at straws, and entertaining the viewer by consulting literary wise men ranging from Professor Leslie Fiedler to editor Robert Gottlieb to The Stones of Summer's lone reviewer. This hunt is nearly as much a man's world as Moby Dick. (Stone Reader is strikingly homosocial: Mrs. Moskowitz will not permit herself to be filmed, and the filmmaker's mother aside, women barely speak.) Flaubert's ideal novelist is one who disappears behind the work; Moskowitz is a filmmaker who places himself front and center, but without vanity. Stone Reader doesn't make a case for The Stones of Summer as a great novel—from what can be gleaned, Mossman's book may be yet another anxious object, oscillating between compulsive overwriting and convulsive over-reaching—but Moskowitz does convince the viewer of his own obsession. What's more, he turns it into a great literary mystery.
As filmmaking, Stone Reader can be rough-hewn and sometimes crass, but Moskowitz's self-imposed mission is moving in a way that completely eluded the Masterpiece Theatrics of Neil LaBute's genteel Possession. "You're way past an ideal reader —- you're in another dimension," the object of Moskowitz's quest tells him. Amen. I've never seen a movie that paid more heartfelt tribute to the power of artistic invention.