By: Peter Rainer
In 1972, 18-year-old Mark Moskowitz, who has since become an acclaimed director of political spots and commercials, picked up The Stones of Summer, a well-reviewed book by first-time author Dow Mossman, and couldn’t get into it. Twenty-five years later, he tried again, loved the book, and subsequently discovered that Mossman had vanished without publishing another word. With a diligence that only a true book nut can appreciate —- there are Mark Moskowitzes crowding the narrow aisles of every used-book store in the country —- he set out to discover what happened to Mossman. His film Stone Reader, at Film Forum, is a marvelous literary thriller that gets at the way books can stay with people forever. Moskowitz interviews a standout crew of commentators, including Robert Gottlieb, who talks about editing Catch-22; Frank Conroy, who presides over the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where Mossman once toiled on his novel; the literary critic John Seelye, who could pass for an old salt on the Pequod; and, most poignantly, Leslie Fiedler, who died two weeks ago, in what may well have been his last filmed appearance. They all look lit up by a love of literature.
Fiedler was especially intrigued by the spooky phenomenon of the one-shot novelist, and so is almost everyone else in the movie. (Harper Lee of To Kill a Mockingbird is practically the film’s mascot.) The silences of gifted writers have many causes, but what’s clear in Stone Reader is the plain fact that novel-writing is a soul-churning experience not to be entered into lightly. It’s possible to make too much out of all this tortuousness; after all, lousy novels are probably just as agonizing to produce as great ones. Moskowitz understands this, but he also says at one point, “Reading is the only thing that keeps me sane.” He subscribes to the cult of the novel, and I suspect that most people who will love this movie do, too. The Stones of Summer sounds like a terrific book, and I hope this film will get it re-issued by one of those rare enterprising souls in a publishing business increasingly inimical to risk. (2 hrs. 8 mins.; NR)