A Reader’s Leisurely Pilgrimage In Search of a Vanished Book

Mark Moskowitz’s Stone Reader is, quite simply, an unalloyed treasure for any viewer who has ever felt transformed by reading a good novel. The irony is that this film, with its technologically subversive passion for print literature in an age supposedly suspended somewhere in cyberspace, has been brought to the screen by a media person par excellence : a maker of television commercials.

The genesis of the film goes back 30 years to 1972, when Vietnam War protester Mark Moskowitz read John Seelye’s rave review of a first novel, Stones of Summer by Dow Mussman. Mr. Moskowitz purchased the novel, anticipating that it would be a clarion call to his generation, another The Catcher in the Rye or Catch-22 . But he couldn’t get past the first 20 pages and put the book aside.

Twenty-five years later, he started reading it again, and this time couldn’t put it down. He began searching for copies to send to friends, and tried to find other works by Mr. Mussman, but couldn’t find anyone who’d heard of the author, much less anyone who’d read the book. The libraries and the Internet were of no help.

At this point, I confess that I began to suspect I was in for a shaggy-dog story; I even wondered whether Dow Mussman and Stones of Summer were outright allegorical fictions in a supposedly nonfiction film. Not to worry: Stone Reader slowly but eloquently evolved into a wildly serendipitous yearlong pilgrimage through Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, California, Iowa, Colorado, New York, Texas, Maryland and Indiana in search of an elusive author, an aborted literary career, and any witnesses to the mysterious drowning of one good book in the ocean of literature.

Mr. Moskowitz is a leisurely, easily distracted, defiantly bookish detective. He savors every clue-and stops frequently to smell the roses. He’s more than willing to converse with anyone with any thoughts on writers like Ralph Ellison ( Invisible Man ), Harper Lee ( To Kill a Mockingbird ) or Margaret Mitchell ( Gone With the Wind ), each of whom produced only one novel in a lifetime.

The late, ghostly Leslie Fiedler (1917-2003), revered author of Love and Death in the American Novel , pops up twice during the filmmaker’s journey. His remarks, however insightful, have little bearing on the attempted rediscovery of Mr. Mussman. Indeed, one suspects Mr. Moskowitz of intentional procrastination. But things turn out marvelously, so I would never dream of faulting him for prolonging the suspense. His digressions are an exquisite tapestry made up of the many troubled lives and hard times of serious writers in America over the past 30 years.

Academe is a refuge for many of the authors interviewed by Mr. Moskowitz: Frank Conroy ( Stop-Time ), head of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop; Bruce Dobler at the University of Pittsburgh; John Seelye (who reviewed The Stones of Summer in The New York Times Book Review ) at the University of Florida; Robert Downs ( The Fifth Season ) at Penn State; and Fiedler, too, in his tenured sanctuary at SUNY Buffalo. To listen to these and a half-dozen other articulate lovers of books talking about writing, and about their attempt to survive in an economic climate inhospitable to seriousness of any kind, is to mourn creative lives cheerfully endured with few material rewards.

When, at last, he’s ready to deliver the solution to the cultural “crime” of literary annihilation, Mr. Moskowitz does so with an overpowering emotional kick that left me close to tears: Here was a supposedly defeated human being without a trace of bitterness or self-pity. Very real indeed, with a vibrant and active mind, Mr. Mossman is a sublime reminder of how much we owe to the good and great writers who have enriched our existence.

I’ve often written that the cinema will never die. Mr. Moskowitz gives us hope that the novel will never die either, and that books will never become technologically obsolete. Stone Reader is more than a film-it’s a labor of love in the best sense, and a gift to civilized life on this planet.

A Prolific Korean

Im Kwon-Taek’s Chihwaseon (Painted Fire) , from a screenplay by Kim Yong-Oak, based on a story by Min Byung-Sam, takes place in Korea in the late 19th century. It tells the story of a young, abused orphan named Jang Seung-Ub (Choi Min-Sik), who grows up to become a world-renowned painter, one of Korea’s national legends. As an artist, Jang Seung-Ub assiduously established an antisocial reputation as a drunken libertine-a ploy to ensure his independence from the rules of the royal court’s school of painters, as well as the apolitical upper-class literati who delighted in displaying their classical education by adorning their pictures with literary captions.

This socially and historically oriented biography of the famous painter happens to be the 98th film of the 66-year-old director in his 40-year career-which is just another way of saying that few of us in the West know much about Korean cinema. Im Kwon-Taek somehow manages to give equal weight to social traumas and aesthetic conflicts that are still relevant in today’s world. If you’ve never seen a South Korean film, or even if you have, Chihwaseon is an ideal place to start or continue.

Going Dutch

Paula van der Oest’s Zus & Zo , which I’m told means “this and that” in Dutch, has been announced as Holland’s official Foreign Film Academy Award entry, and has been described in Holland as a “Dutch Hannah and Her Sisters ,” though with more bisexuality, transvestitism and transexuality than is dreamt of in Woody Allen’s philosophy.

Three sisters-Sonja (Monique Hendrickx), Wanda (Anneke Blok) and the eldest, Michelle (Sylvia Poorta)-organize a conspiracy to keep their gay brother, Nino (Jacob Derwig), from inheriting their beautiful seaside vacation home in Portugal. The three sisters, much clubbier than Chekhov’s troika, are all in their 30′s; they see a future in Portugal as a way to ease their various struggles-Sonja’s as an artist, Wanda’s in a faltering magazine career, and Michelle’s in the time-consuming job of directing a foundation for war orphans and refugees.

The plans of the three sisters are thrown into jeopardy when Nino announces his intention to marry Bo (Halina Reijn) and thereby trigger a clause in their parents’ will which stipulates that Nino inherits if and when he gets hitched. The comedy is driven by all the Friends -like sitcom maneuvers to obstruct the marriage, and by the ability of the beautiful Bo to thwart the sisters at every turn by being sweetness itself. Nino, meanwhile, is still mooning over his fickle onetime lover, a television gourmet named Felix (Pieter Embrechts), who seems to have another male lover. Quite frankly, I was rooting for Nino and Bo to get married inasmuch as Bo is pregnant with Nino’s child-as parents, they might have adjusted to a marriage of convenience.

But Ms. van der Oest, who both wrote and directed, has a surprise up her sleeve before the live-and-let-live “happy” ending. The “surprise” puzzled me and made me unhappy; I felt I’d been led up the garden path and then shoved into the pool.

Perhaps if Ms. Reijn’s Bo had been less charming and attractive, I might have been less bothered by a sudden switch in elective affinities. I suspect that something is being satirized, but I don’t know Holland well enough to figure out what. All I know is that I wanted Nino and Bo to come to a better arrangement-and it’s been a long time since a film made me want to change the ending, as if I were on the set in a commanding position, instead of in the audience with the rest of the customers.

Theatrical Nihilism

Rainer Werner Fassbinder (1945-1982) is the subject of a six-week retrospective of 20 of his feature films and two “rare” shorts screening in new 35-millimeter prints at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street, 212-727-8110) from the Feb. 14 to March 27. The series starts off with a bang, literally and figuratively, with The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), the opening scene of which involves a hastily improvised wedding in the midst of a wartime air raid. Hanna Schygulla stars in the title role as a harshly and yet seductively charismatic participant in the German “economic miracle,” which in Fassbinder’s view drained what little soul Germany had left after the horrors of the Hitler era.

A cultivated man with a profound appreciation of German literature and its savage ironies, Fassbinder was hardly the first major auteur with a gay sensibility (he was preceded by F.W. Murnau, Sergei Eisenstein, George Cukor and Luchino Visconti), but he was far more explicit about his own sexual orientation than any of his illustrious predecessors. What I’ve always liked about his work is that he was less derisive and self-hating than many of his self-proclaimed successors.

Stylistically, he worked in a very shallow visual field that could be dismissed by cinematic purists as obtrusively “theatrical”- an easy charge to make against a man of the theater like Fassbinder. He was no stranger to rack focus as a way of shifting viewpoints, but he used closeups very sparingly, and was commendably Bazinian in integrating his characters with their environment, and in employing the entire bodies of his actors in their dramatic pursuits.

In The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971), which follows The Marriage of Maria Braun , Fassbinder was way ahead of his time: He traces an attack of clinical depression more vivid and wrenching than anything shown on the screen up to that time. As prolific as he was, he never made anything that was false to his deepest convictions. But he did stumble now and then with a fruitless nihilism that left only ashes in its wake. One could say that he never made a truly well-made film, with all that implies in the way of sterile, impersonal professionalism. His plots don’t “work” in the conventional sense; they’re merely pretexts for varied and strangely exhilarating visions of hell.