About a writer
An avid reader actually gets out of his chair and hunts down the vanished author of a book he just read in the winding, progressively fascinating new documentary Stone Reader. This literary “in search of …” begins rather benignly and feels fashioned with the slenderest of threads. But filmmaker Mark Moskowitz gradually takes the spotlight off himself (the prolific political commercial maker seems to enjoy being his own subject for a change) and begins poking through the ashes of a sort of brilliant career that never was. His quest leads him to dead ends and through tangential alleys and gains substantial thematic girth as it evolves from missing-person mystery to ruminate on the essence of reading, writing and a really shadowy world known as publishing.
Moskowitz was 18 years old in 1972 when he read John Seelye’s review of The Stones of Summer in The New York Times. The review trumpeted the first novel by Dow Mossman as a must-devour coming-of-age story of a boy who becomes a teen rebel of the 1950s and by age 26 has become an iconoclast spiritually adrift on the beaches of Mexico. “Reading The Stones of Summer was crossing another Rubicon,” said Seelye, “discovering a new sensibility, a brave new world of consciousness. It is a holy book, and it burns with a sacred fire, a generational fire, moon fire, stone fire.”
The review, like a good book itself, crept under Moskowitz’s skin. He bought it, couldn’t get past the first 20 pages and moved on to other, more personally rewarding treasures. He opened the book again 25 years later. This time, the read enthralled him. He wanted more Mossman but couldn’t find any other works by the author. He searched the Internet. Mossman apparently had disappeared without writing another book. Intrigued that such an original work and promising author could fall from our cultural radar, Moskowitz sought to find out how and why this could happen and chronicled his yearlong trek with a 16-mm camera.
Hollywood shies away from movies about writers and writing. Putting pen to paper is not an inherently cinematic experience by any stretch of the imagination, and the advent of computers certainly has done little to enhance the romanticism surrounding struggles to fill a page with words. The isolation, the periods of despair, the elation of having an idea detonate in one’s head like a grenade, its shrapnel punching holes through thick walls of resistance, is a challenge not often attempted and even less frequently ensnared on film. Stone Reader illuminates this universe and certainly may leave audience members with thoughts of buying a book rather than their next movie ticket.
The film includes interviews with Catch-22 editor Robert Gottlieb, the late literary critic Leslie Fielder, author and current head of Iowa University Writers’ Workshop Frank Conroy, book-jacket designer John Kashiwabara (he designed the cover of The Godfather) and literary agent Carl Brandt. The conversation extends to how and why fiction has changed and to the demise of the novel in the digital age. It touches on the art of teaching, the value of critics and criticism, the process of teaching and learning, the act of co-creation between writer and reader, and the idea that success just as much as failure has ruined the career of many scribes.
Stone Reader points out that Mossman is not the anomaly Moskowitz first surmised. Pop music is not alone in perpetuating one-hit wonders, as is substantiated by such celebrated authors as Margaret Mitchell (Gone with the Wind), Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird). The film also talks of a “no tears from the writer, no tears in the reader” theory that binds artist and consumer. And one of the bottom lines is that writing is not an easy task even for the talented. To quote poet Edna St. Vincent Millay: “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.”
What Moskowitz finds at the end of the film is left for audiences to discover rather than critics to eschew as it takes us back to the days when people bought most of their books from bookstore shelves and not airports. Moskowitz has left actual lines from the book out of the film because of its unavailability. It’s impossible to tell if it is indeed a lost diamond. It’s to Moskowitz’s credit that we will have an opportunity to judge for ourselves. Mossman’s book is currently set for a fall re-release.