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It seems those few critics and IMDB (and Amazon) reviewers who criticized
it--occasionally while still giving it a favorable mark--are intent on
complaining about what the movie ISN'T rather than what it is. Sure, the
fictionalized shots of guys getting the book in the mail, etc., violate The
Great Ethics of Documentary Films brought down from Sinai by Moses. (You
know, Thou Shalt Not Recreate). And, yes, he does meander a bit and delay
the pay off, but...so what?
This is more a conversation about books than a movie in any conventional sense. Complaints that some many interviews don't move him towards the goal of finding Dow Mossman miss the point that the interviews are themselves interesting conversations about the love of good books. Visiting Sealy (the NY Times reviewer who inspired him to read the book) doesn't solve anything--but who wouldn't want to hang around with him a couple of days discussing great reads? Of course, when he finds Dow, what do they do? They immediately talk about books! Love of books permeates everything here, most poignantly and surprisingly in the clearly emotional response the agent Carl Brandt has to being reminded of what he considers a great book and reflecting on a missed career.
Let's put it this way: if you love books, if you love talking about novels, if you get a thrill of excitement when you over hear a conversation about a book you love, then you will enjoy The Stone Reader. It is not conventionally well made, but thank heavens for that. It could be "better", but I doubt it could be more enjoyable.
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.
I enjoyed this movie but the search was too contrived -- in an hour's worth
of phone calling, just to the people listed on the book jacket, Dow's
location would have been nailed down. Obviously, that wouldn't have made
much of a movie, but it is exasperating to watch Mark Moskowitz go through
this painstaking, globe-trotting search for someone who wasn't that hard to
However, the story of a well-written, well-reviewed book disappearing without a trace, the author's story, and the interesting web of people connected to him make this a satisfying and unique movie.
The quest to find the author of a well reviewed but now long forgotten and
long out of print novel is the crux of this documentary. This is a do it
yourself affair as director Mark Moskowitz chronicles his personal quest to
find the author of The Stones of Summer, a book he read 30 years after
This is a film that any avid or compulsive reader can relate to, especially if one has ever fallen in love with an author and sought to find out everything about the person who has just touched their lives. I'm just not certain that many o us would go to the lengths that Moskowitz goes to to get his man.
For me there are two problems with the film, first is the fact that for a good portion at the beginning of the film we don't really know what is driving the quest. Yes, its a good book, but why that book? Repeatedly we're told that no one has read it and as things unfold we aren't even given a synopsis of "the grail", we're just told that its a great book as we see Moskowitz buy and hand out copies of the book to his friends. There is a lot of talk about books other than Stones of Summer, which would be fine, but they are better defined than the book at the center of our tale.
The second problem is that Moskowitz, while he seems to be a nice guy didn't seem like some one I'd want to hang out with. Granted the film is about his obsession, but thats all it seems to be about at times and I never really warmed to him as a person, which hurts since the movie, ultimately is about him.
My recommendation is to find a library and borrow it. You may like it, you may not. If you aren't a book person I'd stay away since the "fan" aspect seems more rooted in things literary than in universal themes.
I saw The Stone Reader at an advanced screening and thought it was wonderful. Finally, a movie made by someone who understands the magic of books. Moskowitz (sp?) talks a lot about the indication of a good book being that you feel like the author is just sitting there talking to you. It's so true, and what Moskowitz may not realize is that he accomplishes the same thing through his film. It drags in places and the camera work is a bit jumpy, but the content more than makes up for it. Thoroughly enjoyable, I'd recommend it to anyone who's ever loved a book.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This movie is a labor of love from Mark Moskowitz and while I gave the
movie a score of '5', when this movie is good, it's really really good.
The search for Dow Mossman motivates the movie and is also a convenient
pretext for a discussion of books and a love of literature.
Whatever Moskowitz's flaws as a detective, most of his interview subjects are interesting. For the most part, any digressions caused by his subjects are forgiven.
What can't be forgiven is the slack film-making. I'm not sure what exactly Moskowitz was trying to achieve with his explanations of where he was in the film-making process while watching him do yardwork or something even less compelling then that. Furthermore, although in some of his interviews he shows keen insight, that does not mean everything that comes out of his mouth is interesting. Yet Moskowitz apparently operates under that mistaken belief.
The second half, for the most part, is better than the first, as he comes closer to achieving his goal. Still, he nearly undermines this with some silly decisions that disrupt the flow. (Spoiler time!) In particular, after he finally corrals Mossman, he cuts to some prior interviews -- in a couple cases, they tie in to a point he's making, though sometimes these bits go on too long. Even worse, he decides to cut to a bit where he has the reels of film, explaining that he's going on vacation but needs to have his film secured while his family is away. This is quite pointless.
Finally, what is particularly frustrating, is that once he starts talking to Mossman, he fails to recognize perhaps an even greater story in his midst. Although the fact that Mossman spent some time in the IL' 'nervous hospital' is mentioned, Moskowitz doesn't dig. Moreover, Mossman later notes how when he wrote, he just kept working on it and working on it, editing and changing and editing and changing, and he couldn't stop. This, combined with some other qualities that show some unusual obsessive behavior, may have made for an even better film (in some respects, in league with Crumb), with the quest for Mossman reduced, and then a study of Mossman taking up the bulk of the feature. Of course, this would require a filmmaker more focused on his subject than how his subject relates to the filmmaker.
The Stone Reader is a documentary film based on a man's quest to find a book writer which whom he is absolutely amazed by. This book writer, Dow, wrote a single book, `The Stones of Summer,' and then disappeared and never wrote again. This man is search of Dow is confused why Dow would write this book which received excellent reviews would just stop writing after only producing one book. This documentary is different from most documentaries a person would normally watch. Most documentaries teach an audience about a certain event or person. This film elaborates on a person, but it's really not about the person per say. The film focuses on the quest or dream of a man to find this amazing writer and the process of which he does it, but most of the time the audience is actually learning about the writer and how he was unknown to the world even though he accomplished something great. What I mean by this is that the camera is following the man on the quest, but the whole time everyone, including himself, is talking about Dow. The thing that is interesting about this film is the way that everything filtered together. Being a documentary, the producer can't predict how the thing is going to end or how other things will come together. During this time of searching for Dow, this man travels everywhere talking to people who reviewed the book, people that went to college with Dow, and even individuals that helped put the book into production, but none of these people knew who Dow was and many of them never read or even heard of his book. So this man was running into a bunch of dead ends. Finally, he gets a hold of Dow's writing professor just to talk, not even mentioning Dow's name. So the two are talking about his students, this is all taking place in Iowa I might add and that Dow was a student here at the university, but the professor describes on of his students who he sent to get psychiatric help and it happened to be Dow who was still living in Iowa. If only the man would have started his search from where Dow started, his quest could have been accomplished with less hassle, but then the documentary would have been a lot shorter and less interesting.
"Stonereader" is a shoestring indie documentary about a guy (Moskowitz) who reads a book which has been out of print for 30 years and then goes in search of the author. Part docu film-maker, part private investigator, and part literature freak, Moskowitz spends considerable time and effort in his quest to locate the author of "Stones of Summer" though his motives are questionable. Regardless, the result is a worthy film, given it's indieness and meager premise, and a good watch for those into literature, the creative process, or just documentaries about Americana and/or novels. It is also a good commercial advertisment for the book which the film alleges was reprinted after the film was released. (B)
I found the DVD by accident while looking for Bowling for Columbine(June 2004). The jacket just struck a sensitive cord down my spine. Books are my weakness, good books and great reads. The film itself is worth every penny spent and it is such a shame that I have never heard of it nor seen it on screen last year(2003). Today, I watch it almost once or twice a week for so many reasons. To remind me that passion really motivates one to strive harder than the mediocre effort to achieve what is in ones heart and mind. It keeps me leveled and humbled all the time and it constantly tells me on how the searcher and the searcher found each other and the story never ended there...it gets even better. Of course great books that were long forgotten are worth reading(some even before i was born) and if done with, go and read them again. Because nothing is richer than a life well spent of reading and digesting all these amazing and mind blowing well of words than revisiting the pages again just because...
This documentary is far more dramatic than it at first appears. Markowitz,
documentary film maker, has discovered a copy of The Stones of Summer,
it, finds it to be brilliant, and looks for more by the author. When he
finds no further works, and that no one has apparently read or heard of
novel or its author, he sets off in search of the author by chasing down
interviewing everyone associated with the book: the NY Times book
the editor, agent, cover artist, etc. He learns that the author, Dow
Mossman, attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop with several well received
writers, and he interviews the professors and classmates. At the
of Iowa archives he finds Mossman's drafts and notes, and begins to
that Mossman was obsessed with the book, struggling through many hand
written rewrites, resisting the editor, and surrendering the novel for
publication under great duress. A retired professor lets on that he feels
responsible for pushing Mossman over the edge into an insane asylum.
Markowitz finally meets Mossman, living alone in the decrepit and
house he grew up in. We focus on the moth holes in his sweater and his
disintegrating shoes, and we understand that publication of his novel was
the apogee of his existence, that ever since his life has been a failure.
works for the local newspaper, not as a journalist, but as a truck loader.
The interviews with Mossman are painful to watch.
The movie builds steam, and by the end you are aware that you have experienced two characters' arc, Mossman's and Markowitz'. The film is handicapped by poor and uneven photography (even by cinema verite standards), owing perhaps to the volunteer crew and absence of a focus puller. But this isn't really about cinematography, it's about the agony of the artist and the price he pays. Literature can be a cruel mistress, destroying her lovers capriciously.
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