When I first saw Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader two years ago, I refused to write a review. Though I didn’t like the film itself, I admired the humanitarian mission at its center, and as such figured a bad review would deter people from discovering Dow Mossman’s novel The Stones of Summer. Moskowitz couldn’t finish Mossman’s work the first time he opened it in 1972. Many years later, he fell in love with the book and was shocked to discover that Mossman and his novel had disappeared off the face of the earth. Then begins the journey of (self-) discovery that takes Moskowitz all over the country. In meeting critics, editors and agents, the writer-director looks to expose how a critical and popular community could let a book like Stones of Summer fall through the cracks. Critic Mike D’Angelo accurately points out in his review of the film that it’s impossible not to warm up to the film if you’re a literature buff, but takes Moskowitz to task for a series of aesthetic fabrications. There’s plenty of them, namely the shot of Moskowitz’s friend strolling to the mailbox to receive a copy of Stones of Summer the director mailed him. D’Angelo humorously points out: “In fact, I’m not even 100% sure that Mossman’s novel exists.” Because the obfuscations aren’t theoretically relevant, they’re merely a means for the director to elongate his own genteel narrative. The documentary is powerful enough that I logged on to eBay directly after the media screening to look for Stones of Summer; not surprisingly, I couldn’t find it, but that may have had less to do with the fact that the book was very rare at the time of the film’s release than it did with an insatiable Moskowitz’s need to own every copy in existence. In the end, I’m less bothered by the man’s aesthetic put-ons than I am by a certain egocentric desire to position himself as a messiah for the literary community. Indeed, Stone Reader is a humanitarian effort, but Moskowitz’s preening and cloying voiceover can wear on the nerves. Loved the discovery, but hated the man’s forcing of himself on the project.
It's always good news when a New Yorker Films release, like Trembling Before G-d and Stone Reader, makes a shitload of money. Not only does the extra cash flow ensure top-of-the-line DVD releases of the big money-makers, but it permits the resurrection of works unavailable on video (most recently, L'Atalante, Shoah and Underground). The print used to make this Stone Reader DVD is a little on the murky side, but it's remarkably clean and there's very little in the way of artifacts and edge enhancement. The Dolby Digital surround track is surprisingly expansive considering the spareness of the soundtrack. Mossman's voiceover comes through loud and clear, and it's nicely separated from the film's excellent score.
Wow. Where to begin? The back of the DVD cover advertises a feature length commentary with director Mark Moskowitz, but Stone Reader fans should know that author Dow Mossman also appears on the track and actually does most of the talking. Though Mossman has nothing but respect for Moskowitz, he's surprisingly critical of Moskowitz's aesthetic approach. Describing the film, Mossman beautifully states, "It's not a mirror, but its not looking out either." Rounding out the features on the first disc is a virtual book list of works produced by the authors who appeared in the film, a somewhat self-congratulatory plug for Lost Books Club, and trailers for Trembling Before G-d, Life & Debt, Kandahar and Late Marriage. Disc Two begins with a 15-minute interview with Betty Kelly, who edited Stones of Summer when she was a very young woman. She describes her rocky relationship with Mossman and how she had to condense the man's original manuscript by 500 pages. Next are 24 minutes of "further conversations" with the likes of Robert C.S. Downs, Frank Conroy and Bruce Dobler. The intimidating Leslie Fiedler intelligently goes on about the business of book publishing on "Leslie Fiedler: More from Stone Reader" and the relationship between writers and critics on a 50-minute episode of "Firing Line" form 1974. "A.S. Byatt and Toni Morrison" is unfortunately short, but its inclusion here is a testament to the dedication of this DVD package. Dare I say it, but the features collected for this two-disc edition say more about the way audiences, critics and authors relate to each other than the actual documentary does. "Henry Roth: Connections Across Time" is a stirring, 30-minute remembrance of how Roth's Call it Sleep was, like Stones of Summer, similarly resurrected from near obscurity. Rounding out the second disc is a 20-minute interview between Janet Maslin and Moskowitz, a "What Happened Next" feature that focuses on Moskowitz's discovery of the writings of John A. Williams, Roger Ebert's introduction of the film at his Overlooked Film Festival, 13 minutes of deleted scenes (with a heavy focus on Frank "Unstrung Heroes" Lindz), Cindy Stilwell's short film First Story, a writer's panel segment, a theatrical trailer and a photo gallery. Whew!
You don't have to be a fan of the documentary or a fan of Stones of Summer to cherish the impressive supplemental materials available on the set's second disc. I love you Toni Morrison!