No Stone Unturned

Filmmaker’s search for forgotten author a quiet sensation

By: James Sullivan

Filmmaker Mark Moskowitz spent a youthful summer in San Francisco in 1974, doing unskilled labor. He arrived with a tiny knapsack of belongings, including a single change of underwear.

"The most weight in the bag," he recalls, "was my copy of 'Gravity's Rainbow.' "

For Moskowitz, now a successful director of political advertising, books have always taken up most of the space in his life. His latest work isn't political at all, but it is a little film masterpiece of persuasion and advocacy.

"Stone Reader" is Moskowitz's highly personalized story of his obsession with a 1972 book called "The Stones of Summer." The author, Dow Mossman, seemed poised for a moment to be the next great American novelist -- and then he disappeared.

Oddly, Moskowitz didn't even finish the book when he first picked it up. Revisiting it a quarter century later, though, he fell head over heels for it. He started asking around and soon realized that the book and its author had fallen into a black hole. Used copies of "Stones," long out of print, were extremely rare. Few people seemed to remember it, or Mossman, at all.

Moskowitz's feature-length film is too personal to be a conventional documentary; the director calls it a "vision quest," for lack of a better term.

However it is classified, his hunt for the elusive Mossman proved to be the cinematic equivalent of a bona fide page-turner.

The film won the Audience Award for best feature and a Special Grand Jury Honor at the 2002 Slamdance Festival. Now in slow but steady theatrical release around the country -- it opens Friday at Bay Area theaters -- "Stone Reader" has been rousing viewers to reconsider their own relationships with books.

Mossman, in his inexplicable absence, comes to symbolize the enigmatic allure of the whole culture of books. "Making the film forced me to think about what reading meant to my life," Moskowitz says, "and what a mystery that is."

For many, the books that set them on fire when they were approaching adulthood can lose some of their profundity as they mature. Curiously for Moskowitz, he had the reverse reaction to Mossman's classic coming-of-age story.

The electric language "may have been off-putting then," says the gregarious, fast-talking Pennsylvanian, "but I was willing to go with it (much later) because of the insights into how a child, a teenager, a young adult sees the world. It led me back to understanding how I felt then."

The author's sheer ambition was immensely appealing to Moskowitz. At the time of publication, the world seemed to be bursting with artistic creativity.

"Some people thought they could do it all," he says. "I remember loving that as a consumer."

Books and movies teemed with ideas; music, too. "The longer the rock concert, the better. You got Pink Floyd's 'Ummagumma' and listened to all four sides. I'm not sure I'm listening to it now, but I loved it then."

The film has had an unforeseen consequence for the book: Those rare copies are now fetching $1,000 and more, in some cases, online.

"It's ironic," Moskowitz says. "In my effort to make the book more accessible, I've made it less so. I don't like it." He is, however, chaperoning negotiations among several parties to republish the book.

Searching for scraps of evidence about the author's whereabouts, Moskowitz tracked down more than a dozen influential book people, including John Seelye, the critic whose rave New York Times review of the book in 1972 piqued the young filmmaker's interest; author Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa University Writers' Workshop; Robert Gottlieb, former editor in chief at Simon & Schuster; and the late Leslie Fiedler ("Love and Death in the American Novel"), who eventually helped his interviewer found a nonprofit organization called the Lost Books Club.

Ultimately, the filmmaker does find out what happened to Mossman, and it's as moving as a great, bittersweet novel. He also learns a thing or two about himself.

"I learned that my own creativity all these years has gone into reading," he says.