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The Mossman Prodigy 

Filmmaker Mark Moskowitz rediscovers a lost first novel

Thursday, Apr 24 2003

Mark Moskowitz wasn't meant to be a writer, which isn't to say that he never tried. There were attempts at novels, born out of his lifelong love of reading, pages of hope accumulated, and ultimately abandoned, in some dusty drawer. Moskowitz's true — and no less noble — calling would turn out to be filmmaking, though even that muse was late in coming. Little did he suspect, when he set out in search of University of Iowa Writers Workshop alumnus Dow Mossman — putting on hold a prolific career as a producer of television political-campaign ads — he would end up with a feature-length documentary film. Stone Reader is a film about his search for Mossman, whose first and only (and long out of print) novel, The Stones of Summer, Moskowitz had picked up and just as quickly put down in 1972, but which, upon re-reading it some 25 years later, now seemed to him a masterpiece. It is also a first film about America's one-shot novelists and their orphaned books, many of them long forgotten. About the enormous demands we make of art, and it of us. About the Sisyphean effort of finishing the film itself. Even less could Moskowitz predict that, once completed, the film would take on a life of its own, spinning a narrative at least as serpentine as the one contained within its own frame.

Stone Reader is the book Moskowitz never wrote, the symphony he never composed, suddenly uncovered beneath the thick wallpaper of memory. Like the lyrical coming-of-age novel to which it is the extended footnote, the movie unfolds slowly, holding its mysteries close to the vest, and when it's over, audiences — from the first time I saw it, at the 2002 Slamdance Film Festival, to the fourth time, at its San Francisco premiere early this spring — feel like they own a part of it, much the way Moskowitz has come to feel about The Stones of Summer. (In a sense, he owns all of it, having at one time bought up every available copy from Internet booksellers.) Stone Reader gets at you in deeper, more personal ways than most movies, and long before it started appearing in commercial theaters, a cult of admirers — mostly festivalgoers — had already begun to amass.

Legends abound: Of the bootleg Stone Reader videos, circulated among lit-world elite (Don DeLillo and Thomas Sanchez were among the movie's early fans). Of conspiratorial dissenters who have claimed the film is a complete fiction. Of the stir the movie has created around The Stones of Summer itself, with newly unearthed copies selling for north of $1,000 on eBay and major publishers suddenly interested in bringing the book back into print. In the words of Tamara Straus, editor in chief of Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope: All-Story magazine (and co-sponsor, along with Dave Eggers, of a Stone Reader screening and reception just prior to the film's San Francisco opening), the film "isn't just a movie, it's a movement."

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Stone Reader gets people jazzed about reading, and that is no small thing. Yet, for the better part of a year, it seemed that Moskowitz's movie might wind up a mere cult curio — the movie no one could see about the book no one had read. When Moskowitz brought Stone Reader to Slamdance (where it would go on to win both the festival's audience award for best feature and a special jury honor), he'd never so much as been to a film festival, let alone toured the "festival circuit." With a team of fellow Pennsylvanians in tow, he seemed comically out of place in Park City, like some bemused Jacques Tati character uprooted amid an unfamiliar landscape. That feeling of alienation grew over the subsequent weeks and months, as Moskowitz met with all manner of industry executives, all of them sure they knew best how to handle the film, and not a one of them intent on actually giving it a theatrical release. There were those who loved the movie, but thought no one else would. There were those who wanted to develop a dramatic feature based on Moskowitz's journey. There were those who proposed an animated television series with a cartoon Moskowitz as its star. Until, finally, Moskowitz resolved to promote and distribute Stone Reader himself.

To this day — and despite his ever more elevated profile, including a New York Times feature story and a Today show appearance — Moskowitz has a hard time comprehending how he has come to be the focal point of the attention surrounding the film. (He will no doubt find this very article somewhat bewildering.) "To me, as a reader, I'm more interested in what the people I interview have to say," he told me at the Zoetrope/Eggers event. "If I saw the film, I'd be more interested in going to check out Frank Conroy's books, or Leslie Fiedler's, rather than having more questions about why Mark Moskowitz did this and what it meant to him." Personally, I find his newfound celebrity less puzzling. After two hours of Moskowitz as host and interlocutor — he narrates and appears onscreen throughout Stone Reader — we bond with the lanky Dr. Phil look-alike, recognizing in his quest our own collective need for transformative experience, for the rapture of great words typeset onto paper, paint dried onto canvas, images crystallized onto celluloid. And when the lights come up and Moskowitz is there — which he is more often than not, having agreed, for the moment, to give his life over to this, his very own campaign trail — the pact is sealed.

 

The only other place where, to date, Dow Mossman appears in print is as the co-author (with mystery novelist Ed Gorman) of the foreword to Barry Gifford's superb 1988 film noir companion, The Devil Thumbs a Ride (recently republished as Out of the Past). Gifford has never met — and, until just recently, had never spoken to — Mossman. Yet, like so many others touched by the film, he has become a supporting character in its ongoing story, and, on the day of Stone Reader's Northern California opening, he welcomed Moskowitz and me into his cramped Berkeley studio. Looking around Gifford's highly autobiographical workspace — books stacked ceiling-high, then stuffed under ceiling tiles after that; decades of family photographs and drawings lining the walls; a turned-down bed, suggestive of all-night writing sessions past and still to come — I'm reminded of a line from Moskowitz's film: "The place becomes the book; the book a place within the place."

Indeed, places like Gifford's provide further evidence of the world that Stone Reader both celebrates and mourns — the world of manually typewritten manuscripts, of documentaries shot on 16mm and, to an extent, of reading itself. "People my age and people who grew up on book culture are still readers, and are the preponderance of readers," Moskowitz laments in the car on our way back from Gifford's, "but even some of them can't find time to read. They've given it up, and the film makes them remember how great it was to read. The problem is that as younger people mature, kids who didn't grow up with books and the whole sense of storytelling, they won't treasure it in the same way. It'll go away. It'll become, like Norman Mailer says, an occasional, oddball thing, like going to a classical-music concert. 'Oh yeah, I think I'll read a novel this year.'"

Still, there are hopeful signs. As I am finishing this article, Moskowitz phones me excitedly, newly invigorated after a week of sold-out screenings in Mossman territory, in Iowa City and Cedar Rapids. What's more, there are indications that Mossman himself may be writing new fiction for the first time in three decades. Best, though, is Moskowitz's enthusiastic recounting of an impromptu, all-night housecleaning session with Mossman on the final night of his Iowa visit. As the two pored, in tandem, through the contents of box upon box of long-stored mementos, unearthing decades of faded clippings and correspondence, eventually one letter remained — airmailed from Greece in 1974 and forwarded to Mossman by his publisher, the now-defunct Bobbs Merrill. Carefully unfolding it, Mossman and Moskowitz discovered a single line written in blue ink across the center of the tissue-thin page: "Thank you for writing The Stones of Summer."

Doubtless Mark Moskowitz has by now received — or will soon — one or more such understated yet beautiful notes of appreciation. As former New Yorker editor in chief Bob Gottlieb suggests in a scene since cut from the film, a book may be the most intimate gift one person can give to another. A film like Stone Reader can be such a gift, too.

Stone Reader will screen on Saturday, April 26, at 11 a.m. at UCLA as part of the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, followed at 2 p.m. by a panel discussion titled "The Stones of Summer and the Curious Tale of Dow Mossman," featuring Mark Moskowitz, Thomas Sanchez, Daniel Halpern and Susan Salter Reynolds, moderated by Thomas Curwen. The film opens Friday, May 2 at the Nuart.

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com
  • Filmmaker Mark Moskowitz rediscovers a lost first novel

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