May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
March 3, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at Image Facts.)
All good books have one thing in common – they are truer than if they had really happened. – Hemingway
Mark Moskowitz tossed a copy of a book named The Stones of Summer in a box when he was a teenager. A review he had read of the book back then praised it as a masterpiece, as a voice of his generation. This was enough for the burgeoning bibliophile to rush out and buy a copy, but only a few chapters in he found it wasn’t worth his time. Years later, he opens the same box, reads the same book, and realized he was drastically wrong. The book is a masterpiece. While trying to track down a little more information about the book, Moskowitz finds nothing. While digging a little deeper, he finds even less about this mysterious author, Dow Mossman.
Armed with a camera, Moskowitz makes it his mission to track Mossman down. This proves to be surprisingly difficult, and his dramatic crusade for the “voice behind the text” takes him from literary scholars to agents to book jacket illustrators. Much of the film is occupied in these offices and studios, wherein we find aging literary scholars giving voice to a love few die-hard readers are able to articulate. And when the search becomes absurd enough for us to even begin to question Mark’s motives for going on with the film, he tells us about the first real book he ever read.
He talks about the first time he read Catch-22. This is American literature pre-Vonnegut, when Heller was all there was on that horizon (…can’t even imagine that). And then after reading Catch-22, Mark read a biographical piece about Heller in the New York Times and discovers that the guy just leads a normal life, works a normal day job, and is working on his next book whenever he get to it. The piece also quotes Heller talking about how he writes and how his work simply takes on a life of its own as it progresses. At times he doesn’t even know what it is about until it is finished. Somewhere in this article Moskowitz discovers what the reading and writing of fiction is all about: it is a strange communion that happens somewhere behind the text. A network of real people reading, writing, and wondering in uncanny intervals. His discovery of Heller, the “historical Heller,” unfolded a subtext in his books along seams of recognition between author and reader. His search for Mossman is little more than an extension of this desire for personal encounter through literature, of that odd sensation of feeling “the author’s soul pressing out from the text.” (It really is all a bit continental.)
This is Gadamer writ large, the creative transaction between writer and reader becoming a protracted road trip towards a “new horizon.” The eventual discovery of Mossman, however, is well worth waiting for. Moscowitz sets us up for this grand Barthesian mystical encounter, and ends up with a payoff of which Errol Morris could have ironically made a bristling meta-documentary. At the risk of giving too much away, after having watched this documentary I now find myself wondering how much I reallywant to know about “the author.” (And there are some authors I really am not interested in meeting via text. Meeting Thomas Mann is like being coughed on by a sickly person. Meeting Kierkegaard is like being scratched by a short pedestrian’s umbrella. Etc…)
It is often said that filmed adaptations of literature often don’t work because of one simple reason: The things that make books good don’t make good films, and things that make films good don’t make good books. Usually this is true, excepting the rare case like last year’s brilliant adaptation of Spider, or Gilliam’s masterful recounting of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Such films verge on rendering the association between reading and watching as something more than just potential, though they eventually hedge their bets as films made from books that are little more than set-pieces of imagery anyway. As a documentary about reading, Stone Reader does little to break this impasse, over time building an accumulation of readerly moments that seem to be teaching us a corollary to the classic rule: what makes a good reader does not necessarily make a good documentarian. Moskowitz only really has here about enough material for a tale the size of The Pearl, but manages to stretch it out to Grapes of Wrath proportions. Granted, the avid reader, the bibliophile, the literary junkie, will all willingly hop along for this long ride. It is ripe with little a-ha moments. But the casual reader may find themselves wanting to dog-ear the story about half of the way through.