Wednesday, February 12, 2003

February 12, 2003
Recounting Obsession With a 1972 Author

In the author's photograph on the dust jacket of the 1972 novel "The Stones of Summer," Dow Mossman is lean and rangy with a defiant mustache and a look of conviction. The producer and director Mark Moskowitz has, by comparison, friendlier facial hair but an ingratiating and determined manner: he's going to find Mr. Mossman. It's what his film "Stone Reader" is all about: the director's search for a writer whose single work is still a touchstone in his life.

Mr. Moskowitz, who stars in the film, has the go-getter stride of a second baseman; he looks as if he could scramble off the base and make the right play. You'd never guess from looking at him that he could create a loving and lovely filmed ode to obsession.

In 1972 Moskowitz was inspired by a book review in The New York Times to read "The Stones of Summer," a first novel by an author who disappeared, never to be seen or read again. He put the book down, but the fate of its vanished author haunted him and ultimately led to a documentary as quest.

Amusingly, Mr. Moskowitz presents himself in the movie's opening as if he's selling himself, to his director of photography and the audience. Since he makes his living as a director of political-campaign commercials, it's all too fitting that he would start the film working to win the audience over. (Accompanying "Stone Reader" to the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where it won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards, he was as proud as a consultant who led his candidate into the Oval Office.)

"I couldn't get into it," Mr. Moskowitz said of the novel, confessing that it took several attempts before he finally immersed himself in its rhythms years later. A Mossman quotation that opens the film states, "This dream is my fiction entirely," and "Stone Reader" is Mr. Moskowitz's dream entirely.

"I can't find anyone else who's read the book," Mr. Moskowitz says, though he ensures that this state of affairs will continue by buying up every copy of "Stones of Summer" he finds on the Internet. (When a friend mentions this to him, Mr. Moskowitz counters, "Nobody's read it anyway.")

He carries a beat-up, coverless paperback copy of the book around with him; it's seen so much wear that the rubber band holding it together has begun to cut the yellowed pages in half. And much of the documentary is bound by a rubber band: the director's enthusiasm. (At 128 minutes running time, it has to be, although the version I saw at Slamdance was 140 minutes.)

As the filmmaker begins his footwork, he finds other readers who were initially thwarted by favorite novels. One of them is the literary critic Leslie Fiedler, who died last month at 85. He talks in a magnificently cantankerous way about his long courtship of Henry Roth's "Call It Sleep," which for years was considered a long-forgotten one-shot masterpiece. A wisp of a smile plays above the thundercloud of a beard that surrounds his face when Fiedler tells the camera he won out. He disarms Mr. Moskowitz's wonderment over Mr. Mossman's singular achievement by asserting, "It's more typical for a writer to write one book and stop."

Fiedler, however, doesn't smite the director's restlessness. In rural Maine, Mr. Moskowitz finds John Seelye, whose review spurred him to buy the book. After a lively, encouraging conversation about books, Mr. Seelye acknowledges that he has no idea of Mr. Mossman's whereabouts. On the subject of Mr. Moskowitz's search, Mr. Seelye sounds an ominous, discouraging chord, "He might just turn on his heel and walk away."

Fiedler tells the camera, "The act of writing a book is the act of falling in love, with yourself and the audience."

That pursuit is obviously also a part of filmmaking for Mr. Moskowitz, and it's plainly visible in "Stone Reader," a filmed chronicle of the way books stack up, literally and metaphorically, in people's lives. He interviews a friend about a childhood fixation with the Hardy Boys mysteries, and "Stone Reader" is just such a clear-eyed chase. Like the Hardy Boys books, this film is enchanting and diverting but not resonant.

The best thing about "Stone Reader," which opens today at Film Forum, is that it will provoke discussions of the alarming number of authors — like my favorite, Ralph Ellison (who comes up in the film) — who lighted a single fire in their lifetimes. The warmth of the conversations keep them alive. As Mr. Seelye tells Mr. Moskowitz about maintaining an author's legacy, "The strongest way is word of mouth." It will have to be. An end-title card says, "To date, Dow Mossman's 'The Stones of Summer' remains out of print and is almost impossible to find."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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