- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

“I don’t know what made me do it,” Mark Moskowitz comments. “It was certainly a high-wire act. The methodology was the exact opposite of what I usually need to do.”

Contacted at home in suburban Philadelphia, Mr. Moskowitz is recalling the chain of events that led to the documentary feature “Stone Reader,” which opened yesterday at the Avalon. It’s tempting to recommend it as the “feel-good” discovery of the year because this cliche is seldom applied to documentaries, customarily the arena for portentous social problems or introductions to learned and edifying topics.

Not that “Stone Reader” isn’t edifying — especially about the relationships created between writers, editors, critics, publishers and readers — but it also boasts suspense and emotional payoffs superior to the devices invented for the vast majority of fictional films.

“Stone Reader” is the serendipitous consummation of a diligent and successful career for a nontheatrical filmmaker. For the past 20 years or so, Mr. Moskowitz, married and the father of three, has flourished as a message bearer for clients in politics, sports, entertainment and industry. He has supervised hundreds of advertising spots for members of Congress, state officials, mayors, athletes, musicians and chief executive officers.

“Every political campaign seems quixotic,” Mr. Moskowitz observes, “but this movie was quixotic in the most humbling way. In the middle 1990s, I worked really hard, almost insanely hard, to establish our film company, which is usually pay-for-hire work. My wife and I decided to take half the money we could save and place it in a little fund to do some things that are independent from the commissioned projects. ‘Stone Reader’ is the first of that batch to be finished. It grew out of a need to try a different approach before time ran out on me. Sometimes you look at the career you have as a detour from the career you wanted.”

Literature was his first aspiration. Mr. Moskowitz tried his hand at a couple of novels in his youth, then reconsidered. “I didn’t have the chops for novel writing,” he says, “but I did acquire the chops needed for nonfiction filmmaking, and I still wanted to be a storyteller in ways that kept eluding me.” Making fictional films wasn’t a burning desire, but Mr. Moskowitz did want to sustain narratives to an extent that wasn’t required in much of his work.

The impetus for the movie was the rediscovery of a book, “The Stones of Summer” by Dow Mossman. The teenage Mark Moskowitz had started to read it in 1972, soon after its publication by Bobbs-Merrill. To his disappointment, he stalled at about page 20 and returned the volume to his bookshelves, where it hibernated for 26 years.

Mr. Mossman had begun writing the book while enrolled at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1965. One of the glowing jacket blurbs came from his teacher and mentor, William Cotter Murray. Mr. Moskowitz originally was attracted to the book by a favorable review in the New York Times by John Seelye, then an English professor at the University of California at Berkeley. Alerted by Mr. Seelye to a precocious 522-page novel that might have special significance for the young and rebellious, Mr. Moskowitz was surprised that “Stones” didn’t to speak to him immediately.

Deciding on impulse to give it a second chance in 1998, the mature reader found himself overwhelmed and astonished. He thought “Stones” one of the most impressive and stirring American novels he had ever read. He was curious about what had become of the book and the author after a seemingly auspicious debut.

To make a long story short, the book virtually had been forgotten and the author had dropped out of sight, evidently a one-book flash in the pan. The original Seelye review had been prophetic in certain respects: It cautioned that “Stones” reads like a self-consuming whirlwind and might presage a short career.

The early phase of the Moskowitz itinerary in “Stone Reader” includes visits to such experts as the late literary critic Leslie Fiedler, the former editor and publisher Robert Gottlieb and Mr. Seelye. Eventually, the trail leads to Iowa and the doorstep of the phantom author himself, Dow Mossman.

“It never occurred to me to go there until the point in the movie when I do set off with a film crew,” Mr. Moskowitz explains. “Do you know how much it costs to take a crew to Iowa?” Now I do: $66,000.

At the outset, Mr. Moskowitz economized by driving to places in the East and talking to people who might reasonably be expected to tell him something about Mr. Mossman. None of them could.

“The emphasis at the start was more on the book itself,” the filmmaker explains. “That suggested the phenomenon of one-shot novelists and the long list of good books that have fallen out of circulation. Plus changes in publishing over the last 30 years. I would have been fine with those as ongoing topics of interest. I didn’t know if I wanted to find the guy — assuming he was still somewhere to be found. I preferred not to think about it. Did I want to barge into someone’s life?”

Mr. Moskowitz did feel duty-bound to talk to a pair of eminent residents of Iowa City. Frank Conroy, who had become the director of the Writers’ Workshop, had published an acclaimed first novel, “Stop-Time,” and then suffered through a prolonged dry spell. “The Stones of Summer” had been dedicated to William Cotter Murray. He seemed the likeliest workshop fixture to recall Dow Mossman.

Mr. Moskowitz hits the jackpot with these contacts. Mr. Conroy gives him an invaluable tip about the special-collections department at the library. Mr. Murray becomes the first interview subject who doesn’t have to be prompted about Dow Mossman. He removes the veil of mystery. He even has the elusive writer’s phone number, in Cedar Rapids. From that moment on, “Stone Reader” becomes a uniquely happy movie.

A reprint of “The Stones of Summer” is due Sept. 22 from Barnes & Noble. According to Mr. Moskowitz, “Dow is excited and says he’ll be happy to drive around promoting it, as much as he can. Dow doesn’t fly, but he has a Toyota Tercel and used it for a round trip to New York City. He was on the ‘Today’ show. Drove a couple of thousand miles round trip for a two- or three-minute appearance when the movie opened there. It deserved a Talk of the Town piece.”

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