His Search for an Author Became a Searching Film


By: David Mehegan

Every original artwork is improbable, at least at the beginning. If that were not so, someone else would have already done it. A fresh example: Mark Moskowitz's documentary film, "Stone Reader," which opens at the Kendall Square Cinema Friday. How could anyone make, or sit through, a two-hour movie about an obsessive search for an unknown novelist? Yet Moskowitz has done it, and somehow it is mesmerizing.

Winner of two awards at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival, "Stone Reader" opened in New York in February and is playing now in about 30 cities nationwide, with plans for 30 more in the fall. For Moskowitz, a project that began with no clear goal and at times seemed to be at a dead end turned out to have the best possible ending: a rediscovered writer and a republished book.

In 1972, 18-year-old Moskowitz bought a dense and poetic first novel in paperback called "The Stones of Summer," by Dow Mossman, a writer he had never heard of, after reading a review in The New York Times. "I started reading it," Moskowitz recalled during an interview in Boston last week, "and realized the intensity of the language was the kind of thing I love. But it's an epic, it's multigenerational, and I decided I didn't want to invest my time in it at that moment." He put the 550-page book aside, intending to go back to it, but other activities intervened, and it lay in his collection, forgotten.

More than 25 years later, with a wife, three children, and a successful career filming commercials and political campaign ads, Moskowitz came across the book again.

"I was 45," he says. "Finally I was at a time in my life when I was looking for this kind of book."

He read it, became absorbed by it, and thought it was brilliant.

He looked eagerly for Mossman's other books, but there were none. He tried to find out what had happened to him - why did he never write another book? did he die? - but could not find any published information about the author, and no one he knew seemed to have heard of him or the book. He began to think there might be a film in this story.

At first, Moskowitz imagined he would make a standard documentary: He would find out the whole Mossman story, then present a two-dimensional film about Mossman's life and fate. But the idea didn't sit right with him.

"I wanted to get away from that kind of filmmaking, which I had done for years for pharmaceutical companies and politicians: getting all the answers ahead of time and presenting them to the viewers in some persuasive way," he says. "I thought the time was over for that kind of thing. What interests me as I get older is not so much the answers but the questions."

So he decided he would try to find Mossman himself and film the quest - the travel, the library searches, the interviews with people along the way - wherever it led him.

The film contains interviews with literary critic Leslie Fiedler; Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf; John Seelye, who reviewed the Mossman book for The New York Times; various writers of Mossman's generation; and the filmmaker's friends and even his mother. Gradually, Moskowitz's journey leads ever closer to the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop and the one man, retired professor William Cotter Murray, who knows the whole Dow Mossman story.

Murray tells Moskowitz that he had worked closely with the young Mossman, a student in the Iowa workshop, in the writing of the novel, but it had proven to be such a wrenching emotional experience for Mossman, he never was able to write another.

The viewer meets him when Moskowitz does and infers that the writer's high-strung imagination was as much a curse as a gift.

He married, raised two sons, and stayed in his hometown of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, living in the house he grew up in, making a living as a welder.

Now 60 and semi retired, Mossman was astonished when Moskowitz called in September 1999 (the telephone call is in the film) to say he had loved the book, was making a movie, and wanted to come to see him.

Finding focus

Before starting his journey, Moskowitz and his wife, Clare Quinn, went over the probable costs. They sought arts and humanities grants, without success. He agonized - was it a wild goose chase? Could he afford to put his other projects on hold? He gives Quinn full credit for encouraging the project despite the risks.

"If Clare hadn't said to me, `This is a good thing,' " Moskowitz says, " `You have to follow this through to the end,' I couldn't have done this." He would not disclose the cost of the film but says, "There was financial sacrifice. We had barely enough to get the film made." (He did find financial backers for the theatrical distribution.)

"We began in a sort of half-baked way," Moskowitz says, "not thinking we were heading anywhere. A week later, there was that scene at the start where I'm going through the books, where I suddenly found I had a thousand things to say. I had never thought about why I read and what it means to me. I began thinking about this: Why do I go to my kids' baseball games and bring a book? Why do I have this obsession to decide what I am going to read? I read not to be lonely, for diversionary reasons, to make contact with the voice behind the page."

He started in earnest in November 1998 and pursued the project through the fall of 1999 to the dramatic but understated autumn scene in Cedar Rapids, outside Mossman's lonely white house, with a dog barking in the distance. Before Moskowitz reached that climactic moment, he kept hitting dead ends, all of them seen in the film.

"There was a time when I said, `Why am I doing this? Think of all the books I could have read in the time I have spent on this. I could have read those Thomas Hardy novels!' " Finally he called a photographer friend in Salt Lake City. "I said, `I'm depressed, I don't know what I'm doing, I've spent 15 grand to see [Gottlieb, Fiedler, and several others], I don't know what I've got, it's interminable.' He says to me, `Mark, you don't get it. The more you fail, the better the search is.' A light bulb goes off. I realize this is what I want to talk about. These guys are talking about what books meant to them, what has happened to the writing culture, and [Mossman] is the spark that gets everybody talking."

Connected by books

"Stone Reader" is an American road picture, roaming the country as Moskowitz travels to Maine, Florida, California, New York, Arizona, Indiana, Iowa, Texas. The scenes are vivid: There are red cliffs in Arizona, lobster boats cruising out to sea from Eastport, Maine, and one dazzling night sequence with a boy in an amusement park, as Moskowitz recalls in voice-over his childhood passion for reading. He is the filmmaker, but he's also the main "actor" and narrator, and the viewer sees his excitement, frustration, and pensiveness as the search continues.

The film isn't really about Mossman or "The Stones of Summer" (the viewer learns almost nothing about the book) or the vagaries of the literary marketplace, but about the love of books.

"The film is about the audience, about us having this discussion, about reading and not about writing," Moskowitz says. "It's about how books connect people across time and space. I'm reading Dostoevski's `The Devils,' and somebody in Russia read it in 1880, not to mention somebody reading it in 1940, and Dow reading it in 1964, and here I am reading it in 2000 and reading what Cynthia Ozick and Lionel Trilling wrote about it - it's all a big connection. As the culture changes, are these connections weakening? Dow said to me, after he saw the film, `It's the damnedest thing - a reader gets out of his chair.' "

As he speaks, Moskowitz grows more animated. Tall and articulate, he has a scenarist's gift, describing encounters with people that didn't make the film as colorfully as if they had. At one point, he pulls out a tattered green copy of "The Stones of Summer," its detached pages held together with a rubber band, one of three copies he owns. It's like a holy object.

A lifelong lover of books, Moskowitz once dreamed of becoming a novelist and tried his hand at writing after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. But, by chance, he started working for a commercial filmmaker, and "I was instantly drawn to it." He never wrote the novel.

"The Stones of Summer" is still out of print and almost impossible to find. But when the movie opened in February, Stephen Riggio, vice chairman of Barnes & Noble, the bookseller, saw it and became interested in the book. The result is that Barnes & Noble is republishing the novel in September.

Having followed his passion with "Stone Reader," Moskowitz wonders about returning to the less adventurous world of filming politics and making commercials. When asked what he plans to do next, he replies, "I don't know. What do you think I should do? I'm not without offers, people calling me saying, `Will you direct a film for us on bla-bla-bla?' I want to do another film, but I'm late at the game because it takes five years to get it to market, and by the time I get it done, I'll be 60."

But it seems certain he won't be idle as he considers his options. After all, there are those Thomas Hardy novels.