When Mark Moskowitz, a Pennsylvania producer of political commercials, embarked on his first film, he had no idea it would become a crowd-pleaser that would win the audience award at the 2002 Slamdance Festival and find its way into art-film theatres across the country. The picture, “Stone Reader,” recounts his obsessive search for Dow Mossman, the author of a debut novel titled “The Stones of Summer” which Moskowitz, an avid reader, bought shortly after its appearance in 1972 (when he was eighteen) but at the time didn’t find compelling enough to finish. Taking the book off the shelf twenty-five years later, he was enthralled by the massive coming-of-age story and determined to search out Mossman’s other books. But he soon discovered not only that there weren’t any, but that there didn’t seem to be any information on the writer available anywhere either. So Moskowitz set out to locate Mossman; but he also decided to film the search, which he hoped would expand into a broader discussion of the nature of authorship, the vicissitudes of publishing and the power of literature itself.
“I made this movie sort of just for myself,” Moskowitz said in a recent interview. He admitted that he was surprised when it proved appealing to so many viewers, and more so when it put the spotlight on him even more than on those whom he interviews in it–people like Frank Conroy, head of the famous Iowa Writers Workshop (where Mossman had written his book), literary critic Leslie Fiedler, and Robert Gottlieb, the editor of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” In fact, Moskowitz’s efforts to promote the picture have changed his life, even forcing him to cut back on his reading.
“I wish I had more time for it,” he said when asked about the books he was currently concentrating on. “I wish in some ways I could go back to the pre-‘Stone Reader’ life. I had no idea what this would become. When you make something, you hope it gets seen and you hope that there’s value in it. But I had no idea of the process of it. I’m naive. A studio executive who saw an early cut of the film a long time ago said, ‘Well, I really liked it, but are you ready for this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I can do this. I’m in middle age, my late forties. I think I’ve been around.’ And he says, ‘But are you ready to be in it? You’re going to be in it. You have to think about that.’ Now I understand what he was talking about. I didn’t think the force of the attention would be on me. I thought it would be on why haven’t we heard from Leslie Fiedler…, or why did Frank Conroy write one book and then didn’t write anything for another twenty years? I just never thought I would be talking to you–I thought that you would be talking to them, or writing about them. I just thought I was a nonentity in the film.”
Even now, Moskowitz is reluctant to place himself at the center of the picture’s success. “What people bring to the film, I’ve found, is as much or more than what the film offers them,” he opined. Avid readers respond to the love of books that the picture (and its narrator) embody, but, Moskowitz added, “some of the best reactions have been from people who haven’t read a book in twenty years. And they tell me that it gives them a feeling of a sort of homesickness–they can think of the choices they’ve made in their life” after viewing it.
Another reason why “Stone Reader” has struck such a chord, Moskowitz agreed, was that it takes a circuitous route that was fundamentally serendipitous. “The idea of the film is to be unpredictable in a way that only non-fiction films can do these days,” he said. “We follow the trail, and whatever happens, happens. That’s the great thing about a documentary–life can be stranger than fiction, and it can be more unpredictable. I didn’t figure all the answers out journalistically before making the film. In that way I’m asking for a great deal of your indulgence as an audience, as I indulge myself to find out these answers on your time–my two years of time, but your two hours of time. So it has to be worthwhile for you to indulge me, there [have to] be enough things to learn about along the way.”
Moskowitz actually began his search believing that he’d discover Mossman’s whereabouts fairly early on from one or another of his interview subjects and then move to a discussion of larger issues with them; “The Stones of Summer” would thus serve as a kind of a stepping-stone to a broader cinematic essay. “What I was interested in was in exploring perhaps the relationship between the artist and promotion, and maybe we’d go on to talk about other books at that point; maybe we’d talk about a painter or a musician, and what the relationship of the audience is to the arts and the arts to the commercial world. We’d explore that in a more PBS manner,” he said. But when none of the people he contacted–apart from those who’d been involved in the original publication–knew anything about the book itself, let alone its elusive author, and those who had known him back in 1972 had no idea of his current circumstances, the focus shifted. “Finally I realized that the search is what this movie is about,” Moskowitz said, “and not just the search for what we’re going to find out about Dow Mossman and his particular story, but also why do I need to do this search–what is it about me, or what is it about all of us, or anybody who like the picture, about our need to hear a story, to find resolutions in stories, what stories have interest in our lives, how our imaginations work in stories versus the computer, the journalistic world, the search for information as fast as we can get it?”
Of course “Stone Reader” would be a very different film if Moskowitz’s search for Dow Mossman had ended in failure–as once seemed likely. But he decided, in an act of near-desperation, to travel to Iowa and look for clues there, and one late interview suddenly proved a kind of historical Rosetta Stone, when the speaker mentioned “The Stones of Summer” unprompted. Without spoiling the surprise by revealing the identity of the interviewee, it’s fair to record Moskowitz’s recollection of the event: “I sat there stunned when he said it. I thought here’s another guy and I’m going to have to go and get the book out and show the guy the book, and then he will remember but he won’t be that interesting….That’s a great moment.”
The interview led Moskowitz to Mossman himself, and he feels that it’s the character of the author that makes “Stone Reader” a true audience film. “He has a world-weariness, where he’s been beaten by the system,” Moskowitz observed, “but he has a pride and dignity left. The fact that he is who he is, is the climax.”
But, Moskowitz admitted, he didn’t know at the time that he’d reached the film’s natural conclusion. “Making a first film is probably like many people’s first novel,” he said. “You don’t know when to stop. So even after I go there and see him, I shoot other things–not that they’re in the film–because I don’t know that’s the end. I think, well, that’s nice. Now let’s go and tell the whole story about Dow Mossman. Now that we’ve found him, let’s go talk to all his friends, let’s go see what they think about him. Now that I’ve found Dow, he can tell me all these other things that I can find out about him. And finally I stopped and said, you know, this is insane. And Dow said to me at that point, ‘You have to be careful not to want to film all reality.’ And I realized: you know what? This ends here, and the rest of the story is for someone else to do.”
But “The Stones of Summer” still plays a major role in Moskowitz’s life. His film has revitalized interest in the book (people have sent him amazing stories about it–one proving that James Michener knew the book and thought highly of it–-and a discussion board at stonereader.net keeps them coming), and he’s been instrumental in helping to insure the novel’s imminent republication (see the announcement at lostbooksclub.org)–leading him to advise those who want to read Mossman’s work to hold off paying the exorbitant prices now being charged for used copies of the original edition (he stopped buying them for his interview subjects when the price reached $30, he recalled). Moskowitz even admits that he’s “become a little bit fascinated in reading things today that I couldn’t read back then or loved back then and [finding out] how are they to me now”–certainly an effect of his “Stone Reader” odyssey.
The film may very well send you back to those dust-covered, long-forgotten volumes on the shelves of your study, too.