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An e-mail today alerted me to a showing tonight at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY of Mark Moskowitz's intellectually seductive documentary, "Stone Reader." My decision to go turned out to be the best choice I've made in a long time where film is involved.
Decades ago, during the Vietnam War, a native of Iowa, Dal Mossman, went to college in his state and then endured, probably the right word, America's Parris Island for aspiring novelists, Iowa University's Writer's Studio. Toughness from mentors and an absence of sympathy, much less coddling, characterized the learning process.
Finishing that training, Mossman produced for publication a manuscript he had clearly been working on for a very long time, a dense, atmospheric, brilliant novel, "The Stones of Summer." Bobbs-Merrill published it, several reviews were very favorable and then after scant sales - despite New York Times Book Review section praise - the novel disappeared as did the author.
Documentarian Mark Moskowitz is a true lover of both books and reading, the two not being necessarily linked. He discovered Mossman's novel and began searching, mostly on the internet, for every available copy (there weren't many but he certainly cornered the market). Earning a substantial living largely by producing political campaign spots for TV, Moskowitz decided to do a film about both "The Stones of Summer" and the author and he set out to discover where Mossman had been for some thirty or so years. Probably he felt confident that with his resources he would soon discover the author's whereabouts or learn of his demise.
Moskowitz entered onto a peripatetic and clue-directed journey in which his quest for Mossman took him by car and plane to seek out any former instructors or friends who could shed light on his post-novel fate. Interestingly and frustratingly, virtually all who might have had contact with Mossman didn't remember him at all. The few who did hadn't followed his life after the novel's publication. His Manhattan former agent remembered his one-shot client but only after being shown a copy of the novel which he then recalled as brilliant but the victim of poor marketing by a second-tier publisher.
As Moskowitz searched for traces of Mossman, his vision and curiosity expanded and while the central goal stayed in focus the filmmaker became increasingly fascinated with the fate of "one novel" authors. The sequences become a study in the nature of literature and the personas of authors whose disappearances after one success turn out to be more common than one might have guessed. Several of the interviewees, highly regarded authors, recount their own bouts with depression and at least transient failure.
Smiling an awful lot, Moskowitz nonetheless is unmistakably an ambush documentarian and he gets some of his interviewees to speak very revealingly, in a few instances foolishly. This is not a guy to underestimate. (Several of his negative campaign shorts were shown after the film and they were effective, two brutally so.)
Eventually Moskowitz locates Mossman, still living in Iowa and now working at night bundling newspapers after a career as a welder. Mossman is remarkably open and forthcoming and his deep intelligence immediately impresses. So the film has its hoped for conclusion but the tale doesn't.
Moskowitz initially screened this film in small art houses including, over a year ago, the Jacob Burns Film Center. He brought Mossman out of his shell for that it was and the two became a dog-and-pony show with Moskowitz determined to bring "The Stones of Summer" back into print. And he succeeded. Where the original release may have enjoyed about 4000 sales, the new hardcover edition underwritten by Barnes & Noble has sold over 46,000 copies and a paperback edition comes out next week. B&N's CEO read "The Stones of Summer" and became an instant apostle for its reappearance.
But the truly extraordinary part of the evening was a long dialogue between New York Times film critic Janet Maslin with both Moskowitz and Mossman interspersed with audience questions. Mossman has clearly emerged from virtually hermit-like obscurity (he refers to himself in the film as an "introvert in residence") and is clever, funny AND very penetratingly smart. He has a firm friendship with the filmmaker but what in the end of the documentary is largely a Moskowitz-fashioned relationship has reached a plateau of respectful equality.
And the two are now committed to a project to bring "Lost Books" back into print. Bravo.
I've attended myriad post-film discussions but for interest and depth tonight's is in the top echelon.
In the lobby following the showing and discussion were DVDs for sale, one just of the documentary, the other a special three-disc set with much added material. I bought the latter which I'll explore this weekend.
"Stone Reader" is first a film for booklovers and committed readers but it's also a rare, perhaps unprecedented, filmic exploration of the pain and tribulations of fiction authorship in America. It deserves the widest circulation.
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