The Mossman prophecies

“The Stone Reader” seeks out a new life in an old civilization

Gabriel Shapiro

Media convergence describes the situation in which we find ourselves. Old and new forms of media are increasingly overlapping and available. Books about the Internet, Web sites about books, movies about Web sites and books about movies all compete. “The Stone Reader” is a great example of how these things come together.

Mark Moskowitz is an avid reader; he is also a filmmaker who, prior to this foray into the world of feature-length documentaries, made mainly political commercials. He is Internet savvy, and so when he became obsessed with finding a long-forgotten author, a mighty media convergence was set in motion. Moskowitz set out via the Internet to do research for a movie about a book called “The Stones of Summer.”

What Moskowitz ends up with is nothing short of incredible, not because his subject is remarkable, or because of any wild adventure. Rather, the story he ended up telling was profoundly human, sad and hopeful, beautiful and painful. This story is half Moskowitz’s; the other half belongs to Dow Mossman, the author for whom Moskowitz searches. Mossman enters the film as an absence. Our best insights come not from details about the man, but recollections of the effect his words had on other peoples’ lives. Moskowitz has the drive to search, but Mossman and his book have the draw.

There are two questions that drive the narrative. First, how does somebody write a truly exceptional book and then fall off the face of the earth? Second, what does it all mean? Moskowitz addresses the first question directly; he finds critics, professors, agents, publishers, editors and anyone else who has an angle on Mossman. Those who have read “The Stones of Summer” all agree it is an example of a great American novel, the kind of book that should enjoy a permanent position amongst others in that class such as Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” The majority, however, have never even heard of it, and if there were a group of people who should have, this is it. So the question is revised: How does someone write a truly great book and nobody hears about it, and to top it all off, he still falls off the face of the earth?

To that second question, one certainly not unique to this movie, there are a few answers. Moskowitz has stumbled upon something that does not make any sense. He loves this book and can’t understand how, in a world clogged with unexceptional books, this sparkling gem could be lost. He is trying to put a puzzle together and reveal the answer it obscures. Moskowitz is also growing older and this book brought him back to a place and time that meant something different than what life now means for him.

The search for Mossman is also the search for Moskowitz himself; it establishes a very tangible connection to something ethereal, a memory, a feeling pinned to a time that has long passed. If Mossman can be found, it is as if the past can be heard from in the present, the disembodied narrator of so many books gains form and substance in the instant Mossman is seen. A moment thought silenced through its passing returns to life and brings with it a piece of Moskowitz, which he had let recede into dreams and recollections. There are points when Moskowitz’s gusto threatens to turn overbearing and obscure the moments that make this movie as great as it is, but whether editing, timing or just luck, something saves it every time.

Mossman is not a recluse; he is not J.D. Salinger, periodically scowling through thick curtains, making sure the attention he detests is still hovering near enough to ensure his own sense of celebrity, however publicly unwanted. Instead he is a man for whom fortune’s light was too bright and snuffed too quickly, leaving him shaken, none the richer and, finally, institutionalized. Dow Mossman is an exceptional man living an average life. His breakdown left him cut off from his greatness and led him back to practicalities like making a living and taking care of his ailing mother, and having two sons somewhere along the way.

The brightest spot in all of this is that after screening his film here and there, Moskowitz reached the audience that ended up mattering the most, the CEO of Barnes & Noble. Steve Riggio fell in love with the story of the film, so much so that he dropped a mighty sum of money to procure a rare copy of “Stones of Summer” which he also loved. This September Mossman’s book will re-emerge under the Barnes & Noble imprint, making its return after years of out of print.

There is a line running through everyone in this movie, a community of readers living in a television world. The movie depicts the joy of reading, the active participation in creating the story in a unique way that nobody else might have done. See this movie, then go home and read a book. Then, while walking down any street in the United States after dark and noticing the strange bluish glow in all the windows of the houses, you can chuckle, and think about Dow at home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and how reading can bring people together in the strangest and most magical ways.

“The Stone Reader,” 7:30 p.m., June 20-July 3, Bell Auditorium, (612) 627-4430, www.ufilm.org

Gabriel Shapiro welcomes comments at [email protected]