Stuck between a rock and a hard place in ‘Stone Reader’

Times Staff Writer

In his well-regarded documentary “Stone Reader,” Mark Moskowitz, an agreeable-seeming director of political commercials, endeavors to track down the author of a novel that he tried to crack at age 18. Some three decades after that initial attempt and nearing 50, Moskowitz has revisited “The Stones of Summer” and has found himself entranced. But although he now thinks it “unbelievably great,” the novel has slipped out of print while its author slid into obscurity, which is why Moskowitz has decided to look for Dow Mossman.

In 1972, Mossman, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and on the brink of 30, published his only novel. The book earned a rave in the New York Times but quickly disappeared. History swallows artists all the time, but for Moskowitz, Mossman’s disappearance is a question in need of an answer.

Having come up empty after searching the Internet and the library, he takes a detour from which he rarely strays: If he can’t find Mossman, perhaps Moskowitz can get a sense of himself, starting when he picked up the novel years ago. He turns to his mother and asks her what kind of kid he was at 18. On camera, they pore over family photographs (he sported mutton chop sideburns then); she volunteers that he used to like wearing coat linings and confirms that, yes, he was an avid reader.

Subsequently, and after a tour of his well-stocked library, Moskowitz starts moving down a list of bookish types he’s compiled, hoping that one will remember the forgotten novel. He visits with the late critic Leslie Fiedler, whose passion powers through his palsied voice, but the literary lion admits to not having heard of Mossman. Moskowitz presses on. He meets with John Seelye, author of the New York Times review, who never met Mossman; later, he drops in with former Knopf editor Robert Gottlieb, who also draws a Mossman blank. Indeed, most of the interviewees don’t recognize the errant author’s name, including Iowa Workshop alum Bruce Dobler, whom Moskowitz drives hours to see without first asking if Mossman’s name rings a bell.


And so it goes. Moskowitz sits down with an authority, hauls out “The Stones of Summer” and expresses either mild indignation or muted bafflement about its fate. One of the men shakes his head at the state of things or the culture at large, and together they espouse the joys of reading. Many of the interviewees, such as novelist Frank Conroy, are worthwhile company, but because their on-camera time is fleeting and Moskowitz’s questions are, to put it charitably, pedestrian, they more or less repeat variations on that bookmobile maxim -- “reading is fundamental!” Between interviews, Moskowitz inserts images of his kids doing kid things, like getting the latest “Harry Potter” book. He also films his wife, who refuses to let him show her face, and includes a rather surprising number of shots in which he rakes his lawn.

Time dribbles on, as does the film. For someone who’s been packaging the likes of Al Gore for decades, Moskowitz seems oddly naive about publishing and accessing information. Curiously, it isn’t until he’s well into his search that he visits the University of Iowa, which seems like an obvious launchpad. Stranger still, Mossman has been listed in a widely available literary index since 1975, and the Iowa university’s libraries have a Web page devoted to their Mossman holdings that was posted to the Internet in 1998, the year Moskowitz began shooting. Even if the posting date is incorrect, why didn’t Moskowitz ring up one of the university’s friendly librarians before firing up his camera?

Probably because he would have found Mossman easily, robbing himself of an excuse to direct something other than commercials. It’s reasonable that Moskowitz was looking for a more creative outlet, and as the film’s title suggests, “Stone Reader” is more about the filmmaker, his boomer nostalgia, his kids, his well-tended lawn and his yearning to embark on a midlife journey into the self than it is about his putative subject.

The problem is that not every self merits a 128-minute documentary -- or can sustain one. It isn’t just that Moskowitz never explains what “The Stones of Summer” is actually about (beyond “rebellion”) or whether Mossman had a way with metaphor and wrote in the first person; it’s that he can’t begin to explain what this novel means to him on a deep level.

In this month’s Harper’s, Cristina Nehring argues that some new essay collections are “testimony to the prettily autobiographical frenzy that has lately seized American essayists -- a frenzy for cozy, complacent, and oddly insular self-revelation that has swallowed them up in numbers.” The same goes for any number of documentaries, of which “Stone Reader” is only one of the more grievous examples. Since its premiere at the 2002 Slamdance festival, the film has been hailed as something of a literary thriller; it’s not. The stultifying pace and Moskowitz’s filmmaking laziness are forgivable, but it’s exasperating and indicative of our low expectations for the documentary form that a film that taps the likes of Leslie Fiedler could be so devoid of ideas. Reading is fundamental; so is thinking.


‘Stone Reader’

MPAA rating: Unrated


Times guidelines: Squeaky clean

Writer-director Mark Moskowitz. Producers Mark Moskowitz, Robert Goodman. Cinematographers Joseph Vandergast, Jeffrey Confer, Mark Moskowitz. Editors Mark Moskowitz, Kathleen Soulliere. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Exclusively at Landmark’s Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 478-6379.

Filmmaker Mark Moskowitz will participate in a question-and-answer session following today’s 7 p.m. screening.