Stone Reader
New Yorker Video // PG-13 // $39.95 // February 17, 2004
Review by John Sinnott | posted February 16, 2004
Highly Recommended
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The Movie:

Many people, myself included, have very personal relationships with the books they read.  A book isn't just something you read, it's something you experience.  You bring something of yourself  to a book when reading it.  You relate to the characters (or don't relate) partially based on your own personality, your likes and dislikes, and what you've experienced.  When you read about Bilbo Baggins in Tolkien or Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, it is impossible not to picture them.  You spend time with them while reading of their lives, and get to know them.  The act of reading a book is an interactive experience to it, and that is why so many people are bibliophiles.  That is who Stone Reader is aimed at: those who love books

Director Mark Moskowitz is a book lover.  He always makes sure he has a book with him, and remembers where he was and what he was doing when he read certain books.  In 1972 he read a rave review in the New York Times book review about a new book by first time author Dow Mossman, The Stones of Summer.  He traced the book down and started it, but couldn't get into it and stopped. He kept the book for years and years and finally picked it up again.  He read it, and loved it.  It wasn't just a good book, it was a great book.  An astounding first effort.

He enjoyed the book so much that he decided to get the author's other works.   He looked on Amazon, and there weren't any books listed by Mossman.  He tried some used book sites, and only found a (very) few copies of Stones for sale, nothing else. The more he searched, the less he found.  It was as if Mossman wrote one great book, and then fell off the face of the earth.

So Moskowitz decided to search for him.  To find out why he stopped writing, and what he had done instead.  This film is the story of the search for the obscure author.  Along the way Moskowitz talks with book critics, literary agents, editors and other authors who were somehow connected with The Stones of Summer.  Everyone else who had read the book loved it, but no one knew what had become of Mossman.

This documentary is more than just the hunt for an author though.  It is a testament of people's love of the written word.  Everyone he talks to exudes passion for their favorite tomes.  They talk in terms of books.  Every conversation circles back to a book someone read and enjoyed.  People's eyes sparkle when they converse about Faulkner and Hemmingway and Vonnegut.

It is also a study on writing.  Why writers write, and more importantly, why they don't.   There were many discussions about the large number of excellent writers who only published one great novel, and then stopped.  J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee, John Kennedy Toole, and Margaret Mitchell were all one novel writers, but the books they wrote are considered classics.

To a lesser extent, this is also a movie about obsession.  Moskowitz's idly curiosity about what happened to Mossman becomes a passion.  He stays up late at night scouring the internet for other authors from Iowa (where Mossman lived when he wrote his book) who might have known him.  He drives for hours to talk with a someone who might have associated with him.  He even flies to Florida to interview the person who designed the book jacket for Stones, even though the designer admits on the phone that he has no recollection of the book.  I won't reveal how his search ends, but this is a trip where the journey is as much fun as reaching the destination.

On thing this movie is not, is a review of The Stones of Summer.  You don't find out what the book is about at all.  Moskowitz wisely sidesteps the whole issue of if anyone else would like the book, and never gives a plot synopsis.  Because that doesn't matter.  It is not important why Moskowitz likes the book, just that he does.

Though this movie spoke to me, that is not to say that it is perfect.  Moskowitz produces commercials for a living, according to the movie.  Yet this film has the  look of a very amateur production.  The camera movement is shaky, an there is frequently booms and mics in the shot.  Mistakes that an amateur would have edited out, much less a professional.  It's as if he was constantly reminding his audience that this was a small independent film (which it was.)  In first scene in the movie he even asks a friend to be his DP.  Why is that in there?

There were way too many staged scenes for my tastes.  They film him driving up to his mailbox and finding an important letter, for example.  I think recreated moment like that weaken documentaries.  If that was faked, how much of the other footage was also  staged?

The editing and continuity could have gone a little bit smoother.  There bits of Mossman's story that are missing in the final cut.  At one point Moskowitz gets excited because he has found another writer who was at Iowa Writer's Workshop with Mossman, but he never mentioned that Mossman ever attended the Iowa event, or how he found that information out.  There are a lot of interviews where people are not introduced at the beginning, and the conversations are edited in such a way that some of the comments are cryptic and confusing.  For example Leslie Fielder mentions that the thing he is most proud of in his life was bringing a book, that would have otherwise been ignored, into the public eye.  That book is now considered a classic, but the part where he actually mentions the title of the book has been edited out.  (From the context of the conversation, you can make a good guess as to the identity of the novel, but you shouldn't have to.)

Critiques of the movie's style aside, this is a very enjoyable film, especially for bibliophiles.  Anyone who has ever read a book and been touched by it should be sure to check this movie out.  It is a celebration of books and how they can effect people in positive ways.  As one person says in the movie, books are like food; a pleasure that you never tire of.

The DVD:


The stereo mix was adequate.  With most of the movie being conversations between two people sitting, there was no use of the soundstage, but that's okay.  This wasn't supposed to be a flashy movie.  The dialog was very clear and there were no audio defects.  The background music used in the transitional scenes was quiet and worked very well.  The highs came through with great clarity.


The widescreen anamorphic video was about average for a documentary.  There were a few instances of dirt and video dropouts, and the lens was dirty in a few scenes.  This is pretty standard for a movie where you can't go back and refilm something that didn't work well.  There was some digital noise large patches of sky, but it was minor.  A very adequate transfer.

The Extras:

This two disc set is chocked full of extras.  There is an amazing wealth of information contained.  Nearly four hours worth of extra material, not including the commentary track!

Disc One: 

Commentary:  Spoiler Warning!  There is a commentary over the film with Dow Mossman and Mark Moskowitz.  They don't introduce themselves at the beginning of the film, nor does the DVD say who is on the commentary track, but it's fairly obvious who it is.  I was a little disappointed in the discussion the two of them had.  Moskowitz didn't have a lot to say, since he had already said everything in the film, and Dow didn't talk nearly as much as I thought he would.  There is a lot of dead space on the commentary, and when he talks, Mossman is a little too analytical for my tastes:  "The moon is a joke metaphor in this."  Mossman, who is a big Shakespeare fan, also mentions the bard several times during the commentary.  This got old after a while.  Although the commentary was not what I was hoping for, it was fairly entertaining and worth listening to.  End Spoiler.

Other Books:  Themed lists of books that some of the people interviewed in the movie have written.  Things like "Ten Books Worth Skipping School For." Some of these lists are prefaced by a short interview excerpt.  This was my favorite extra, since I'm always looking for more good books to read.

Web Resources:  A list of web sites dealing with books and authors.  Nothing you couldn't find on you own in a few minutes, but a nice list in any case.

Disc Two:

Interview with Betty Kelly:  A 15 minute interview with the editor of The Stones of Summer.  She wasn't included in the film, but her comments are enlightening.  She talks about how the book came to her attention, and the problems she had editing it.

Further Conversations:   24 minutes worth of deleted scenes with people who appeared in the film.   They talk about the Iowa Writers Workshop, the business side of writing and some of the pressures of publishing, among other things.

Leslie Fielder:  More from Stone Reader 6 minutes of deleted scenes from Fielder's interview.

Leslie Fielder:  From Firing Line:  An episode of Firing Line (50 minutes) from 1974 hosted by William F. Buckley where Fielder is the guest.  This was an great show.  Fielder is a very intelligent man who has a lot of interesting things to say.  He talks about books and literature, of course, but even touches on why science fiction is looked down upon by book critics.  A great extra to include.

A.S. Byatt with Toni Morrison:  A six minute except from a TV show where writer Toni Morrison talks about how and why she became a writer.

A look at Henry Roth: Connections Across Time:  Interviews with people and their recollections of Henry Roth and his book Call it Sleep, another book that was lost.  Originally published in the 1930's, it was republished in the early 60's to much acclaim.  The reissue was the first paperback book to get a review from the New York Times Book Review.  On the cover no less.

Janet Maslin with Mark Moskowitz:  Book critic Janet Maslin interviews Moskowitz after a screening of Stone Reader.

Featurette:  What Happened Next?:  People's reaction to the movie, and how the book became even harder to find.

Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival:  a nine minute Q&A session led by Ebert with Dow and Moskowitz.

Deleted Scenes:  13 minutes of more cut conversations.

Writer's Panel:  A group of writers talk about Stone Reader from a literary point of view.

First Story by Cindy Stilwell:  An eleven minute short film.  The sounds and sights of small town Wyoming.  Fairly interesting, but I'm not sure why this short is on the disc.  It doesn't seem to have any connection to the movie or book.
The theatrical trailer and a photo gallery are also included.

Final Thoughts:

This movie has all the appeal of a mystery, and all the interest of a documentary.  The suspense builds gradually in a graceful arc.  While it never reaches a fever pitch, you are wondering how it will all turn out.  Though I was not enamored of the editing and filming style, the subject and content easily overcame the errors.  The copious extras were really enjoyable to watch, and added much to the movie.

A quiet movie that has the feel of curling up on a rainy cold day with good book.  I can think of no higher praise than that.  Highly Recommended.

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