Stone Reader (2002)
Written and directed by Mark Moskowitz

In 1972, a young writer named Dow Mossman published his first novel, The Stones of Summer, to glowing (though few) reviews; the underpromoted book went nowhere. Though considered a rare genius, Mossman never published another book.

Is it possible for the honest-to-goodness Great American Novel to be written, only to sink into obscurity almost immediately? Can a top-caliber writer really publish only one book, and then go back to day-job hell? Does the cream not always rise to the top?

And what of the few folks who loved the book, and eagerly awaited the next Dow Mossman opus, which never arrived? What is it about a book that might strike a deep chord in some readers, but not allow it to connect to the masses? What is it about the palpable connection to a book that helps it become a favorite? Its look, its feel … where we were at when we read it … what is it about reading that elevates us, expands us, envelopes us?

Stone Reader raises a lot of good questions, though it doesn't get around to answering any of them. What begins as the story of a lifelong bibliophile trying to track down the supposedly "elusive" Mossman bogs down in endless digressive tangents and irrelevant (though often stunning) nature photography. There is a great story here, but the movie seems completely uninterested in telling it.

The problem lies with director Mark Moskowitz, who bought Mossman's book when he was 18 years old, and always wondered "Whatever happened to this guy?" He gets the idea to track down those who know about the book – editors, professors, critics, even a bookjacket designer, and hopefully the author himself – to uncover the backstory. Unfortunately, Moskowitz ends up so pleased with his own artistic creation that the film becomes much more a celebration of his own total mediocrity than any kind of dissection about Mossman, the book in question, or reading in general.

Which isn't to say Stone Reader is a complete failure … indeed, many of the interviews are charming and even inspiring. But the parts don't add up to anything. For awhile, the loping pace and NPR-style tone (Moskowitz even includes two scenes of himself driving while listening to NPR), felt like it was going to coalesce into an elegant paean to the act of reading, with Moskowitz scrutinizing his obsession with Mossman in terms of what it reveals about himself. But the big reveal never came … just a lot of pseudo-intellectual babble among several overeducated folks who are about as disconnected from their hearts as can be.

Moskowitz comes off like a cross between Ira Glass and John Stossel – mellow and genial, but pointlessly confrontational. His love of literature seems to entail having a lot of books, and reading them mostly as a way to disengage from his family (his wife won't even allow him to film her). He seems smug and self-satisfied, so taken with the idea that he is crafting his own cinematic "novel" that when he finally tracks down Mossman, he barely even listens to what the guy has to say – in one scene, he's even shown shush-ing the "elusive" author's eager-to-please rambling and instead focusing on ransacking the guy's house in pursuit of some old contracts related to the book.

It's this lack of awe or humility that ultimately sinks the film. A great documentary requires its creator to be an insightful listener, but Moskowitz seems incapable of letting his subjects speak. As such, he falls into a deep pitfall … that is, allowing the film to rest on his personality and apparent love of reading. But he's so unremarkable that by the end, I still didn't have any feeling for why Moskowitz loved The Stones of Summer, or, for that matter, any book. And a late-in-the-game ambush in which Moskowitz tries to hold Mossman's editor responsible for the book's obscurity, and to get him to commit to bringing it back into print, is so misguidedly barking up Michael Moore's tree that my opinion started to curdle from benign patience to snarly indignation at the film.

So it is in the realm of the cerebral. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, but much, much more so is the heart. Though I'm most angry about having my time wasted.

Review by Ha-Ha Bonerz