Director: Mark Moskowitz
Stars: Mark Moskowitz, Dow Mossman
Release Company: Jet Films
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Even though Billy Crystal (Throw Momma from the Train) correctly states that “a writer writes always,” many have only one major book within them. Nothing wrong with that considering the likes of Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Margaret Mitchell and countless others. Whether they spilled everything they had to say in one narrative, burned out during the re-writing and rejection process, or simply moved on to more lucrative endeavors remains largely a matter of speculation. Such a writer forms the fictional literary genius portrayed by Sean Connery in Finding Forrester, but the real life version isn't exhorting us to “punch the keys” or declare “you’re the man, dog!” Instead, a bland reclusive soul forms the central core of bibliophile/filmmaker Mark Moskowitz’s documentary Stone Reader—more accurately, writer Dow Mossman becomes the film's MacGuffin. Moskowitz's greater subject embraces his lifelong love for books.
Ironically this is also the only “major” film that Moskowitz will likely ever create since it lets loose with about all he has to offer. Ordinarily serving as commercial filmmaker, whose main clients are local Philadelphia politicians, Moskowitz's real passion lies within his massive book collection—the only time he becomes animated is when he finds a kindred soul that loves the printed work. Even his mother recalls how he'd habitually crack open a book during social gatherings and “disappear” into his own universe. He's learned to “play with others” better now, but continues to come across as a true nerd when it comes to the printed page. A man that gets orgasmically giddy when browsing the public library, Moskowitz practically decorates his home with wall to wall books and stuffs them into his airline luggage—who needs a change of clothes when you are surrounded with books?
One book that really intrigued Moskowitz in his teens was The Stones of Summer, the first and only book that Dow Mossman ever wrote. When first published in 1972, the novel received glowing reviews, including one from New York Times book reviewer John Seelye, who stated that it:
cannot possibly be called a promising first novel for the simple reason that it is such a marvelous achievement that it puts forth much more than mere promise. Fulfillment is perhaps the best word, fulfillment at the first stroke, which is so often the sign of superior talent....
Unfortunately, that review was buried on the third page and the novel soon fell into obscurity, along with the author (for reasons revealed during the film). Thirty years later, virtually no one remembers the book and Moskowitz becomes its biggest fan and supporter. He begins buying every copy in existence from Amazon and eBay, pushes them on unimpressed buddies, and finally decides to seek out the author to find out what’s happened to him and why he never wrote another book (and, of course, film the entire process).
All this is great, but it doesn’t make for a compelling film for most audiences. Had Moskowitz taken his cinematic cues from Errol Morris, the cast of writers, publishers, photographers, and academics would come across more entertainingly. Instead, he weakly copies Michael Moore’s dogged pursuit and film style across Maine, Pennsylvania, and Iowa for Mossman, including junk footage better left on the cutting room floor. For instance, one pointless talking head switch is made at the mere mention of Hemingway’s name—not only the jump cut, but adding a voiceover inner flashback about recalling a previous Hemingway conversation. Another scene with suspicious university library workers causes inadvertent humor only because the amateurish camera itself becomes the focus of the scene—“Has anyone here heard of Dow Mossman.” Moore has made a career of interjecting himself freely in his films, but his juxtapositions and dry humor entertain while punching home their point. Moskowitz plods.
Imagine digging through Mark Twain’s attic for artifacts and source material and filming the process. Then take your camera to a local coffeeshop to hang out with literary fans that will converse for hours on end about their favorite books. And that’s pretty much what you’ll see in Moskowitz’s documentary. When most compelling, he interviews a publisher like Robert Gottlieb for inside gems about the business and interviews a writing professor who shares a turning point in his writing career—scenes that become remarkable either for eloquence or unique insights. But others tread familiar ground of bookish geeks conversing about their favorites, or Moskowitz’s young son self-consciously opening another box from Amazon and settling into the latest Harry Potter release.
Despite the film’s weaknesses, I’m certainly glad that Moskowitz put aside any self-doubts and completed the project. The Stone Reader has effected a significant change of heart about Mossman’s The Stones of Summer, and Barnes & Noble miraculously re-released this “lost book” October 22, 2003. Almost certainly this novel would have eternally rested in oblivion had Moskowitz not taken on an Ahab-like obsession to pursue the author and promote his work. Come to think of it, Melville’s great tome had also lain fifty years in obscurity until a number of academic literary geeks decided it was the great American novel. With the publicity generated around this re-release, it’s possible that contemporary academics and critics will cite Dow Mossman as a literary genius. At that point, we can look back at this historic documentary as a literary turning point; otherwise, only a handful of book lovers will find this little film a worthy illumination the perils that authors must face to get published and a commendable homage to obsessive readers.