"All good books have one thing in common: they are truer than if they had really happened." So said Ernest Hemingway, one of the many great writers whose words of wisdom are quoted in Stone Reader, an autobiographical documentary about a filmmaker’s search for an obscure literary hero. Hemingway’s words presumably helped inspire writer-director-producer Mark Moskowitz, a longtime creator of political ads who spent several years making this picture. Those same words helped me understand my own reluctance to embrace Stone Reader, a Slamdance award winner that radiates intelligence and compassion, yet strikes me as too polished and packaged—and in places, a bit unreal.
The film is about Moskowitz’s search for Dow Mossman, author of the 1972 novel The Stones of Summer, a Thomas Wolfe-ish roman á clef about an alienated young American that arrived on bookstore shelves amid critical hype, then disappeared almost instantly. Moskowitz, then a counterculture-minded 18-year-old, first learned about the book in a rave New York Times review by critic John Seelye. Moskowitz headed to a local bookstore and bought a copy, but found the prose too dense and abandoned it after 20 pages. A quarter-century later, he picked up The Stones of Summer again, devoured every word and went online looking for other books by Mossman. To his astonishment, not only were there no more titles, he found no record of Mossman or his novel ever having existed. Moskowitz made Stone Reader in an attempt to figure out what happened to Mossman, and to understand the reasons behind his own adoration of Mossman’s novel.
Part love letter, part detective story and part picaresque narrative, Stone Reader is structured like a cross between Roger & Me and Heart of Darkness. Director Moskowitz also hosts the movie; he’s its amiable Marlow, piloting a rickety documentary boat through America’s literary rivers in search of the elusive, Kurtz-like Mossman, meeting and interviewing various critics, publishers, editors and contemporaries along the way.
Moskowitz wants to track down Mossman and ask him why he stopped writing after just one book; barring that, he’d be satisfied with some solid speculations by people who knew Mossman or the book trade. Moskowitz’s sources include reviewer-professor Seelye, professor and critic Leslie Fiedler, former Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Robert Gottlieb and Frank Conroy, head of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which Mossman attended. A couple of these folks describe Mossman as a genius amateur who lacked professional distance—an artist who couldn’t handle the machinelike pressure of the publishing industry, and who felt so intensely that it fried his brain. As described by the movie’s sources, the most striking thing about Mossman was his aloneness, his tendency to fade into the wallpaper. Even folks who went to school with him don’t remember him. He’s American lit’s Mr. Cellophane.
Mostly, though, Moskowitz is on a journey of self-discovery. The film’s real subject is the intense relationship between reader and author, with Moskowitz standing in for any avid reader who ever embraced an author that vanished after just one book—a subcategory Moskowitz calls "one-and-done." (My favorite one-and-done novel is Theodore Weesner’s The Car Thief; if you ever come across a copy, buy it immediately.) I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the whole time; Moskowitz is a skillful storyteller, and he’s fashioned Stone Reader into a textbook example of the modern, crowd-pleasing, commercially viable documentary (first-person variety).
But at the risk of unfairly presuming a filmmaker’s agenda based on his biography, I must say that Moskowitz’s resume, printed in the film’s press kit, made me wonder if he was, in his own sweet way, playing me for a sucker. "Newsweek described his media as ‘brilliantly targeted’" says his bio; the description fits Stone Reader as well. Despite being a nonfiction film, it seems as close to a guaranteed art-house box-office hit as you’ll ever see. The film celebrates books and reading; what civilized person doesn’t love books and reading?
In a nod to the commercially viable Michael Moore/Nick Broomfield model of documentary, which allows its filmmaker to serve as protagonist, Stone Reader puts Moskowitz front-and-center throughout. And it craftily delays the arrival of Mossman himself until the last half-hour of the movie’s 127-minute running time. (Oh, come on, I’m not spoiling anything. If Moskowitz never found Mossman, the film wouldn’t have won an Audience Award and Special Jury Honor at Slamdance.)
I fully understand the legitimate role artifice plays in documentaries, and have written on the subject many times in this space. Nevertheless, some of Moskowitz’s devices struck me as manipulative. For example, notice how Moskowitz’s camera just happens to be there at his friend Andy’s house when a Stone Reader manuscript arrives via overnight mail, and the retrieval of said package is shown from two angles, each well-lit and composed. Similarly miraculous flukes of timing occur throughout the movie, with many different packages, demanding the question: Why did Moskowitz spend money Fed-Exing packages if he was going to drive over to the person’s house anyway and film him opening it?
It also struck me as odd that Moskowitz—who works in a business, political advertising, that has refined dirt-digging into a touch-button science—would need so much time to find a writer who still lives within a few miles of where he went to school, or that it would have taken Moskowitz over a year to finally figure out that if he visited Mossman’s hometown, he might find him (or someone who knew where he was)? Throughout, my pleasure at the film’s ideas, images, editing, writing and music were compromised by my suspicion that Moskowitz did not go to Iowa right off the bat because if he had, he wouldn’t have had a detective story hook. Don’t get me wrong; much of Stone Reader feels immediate and genuine, and these small, questionable touches won’t ruin the movie for anyone who’s already inclined to like it. But Hemingway’s quote should linger in your mind as you watch it.
Tilting at windmills: Lost in La Mancha is the most entertaining movie on local screens right now. It’s a nonfiction chronicle of how Terry Gilliam’s last movie, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, disintegrated within a few weeks of starting production in Spain, thanks to disorganization, bad weather, location troubles and an elderly leading man (Jean Rochefort) with prostate problems. One leaves the documentary impressed not just by the crew’s perseverance in the face of biblically rotten luck, but by Gilliam’s mostly even-tempered response to that luck. He keeps grinning even while the world falls down around him; as a torrential hailstorm pounds an outdoor set into mud-soup, Gilliam cackles with ironic glee and howls, "Is it King Lear, or The Wizard of Oz?" The few snippets of footage we’re shown seem exasperating and delightful, in the time-honored Gilliam style, and costar Johnny Depp is a hoot. It’s a shame we never got to see the finished product.
Female trouble: Writer-director Paula van der Oest’s Zus and Zo reminded me of a subpar episode of Sex and the City, only with better photography. Don’t fault the actors—they do the best they can with a terminally arch and cutesy script about three sisters trying to break up their gay brother’s ill-advised marriage to a female friend in order to stop said brother from inheriting a beloved beach house in Portugal. Had enough? Thought Zo.
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