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and Neil Hunter

The closing scene of François Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 nails one of the least cinematic of themes: bibliophilism. In a totalitarian society from which all books are banned, rebellious outcasts have memorized texts by their favorite authors. These so-called “book people” gather in a snowy forest and recite themselves, sacrificing their own identities to assure the survival, however brief, of literary works they cherish.

Mark Moskowitz, who produced and directed Stone Reader, wouldn’t feel out of place among such people. Three decades ago, an 18-year-old Moskowitz read a favorable New York Times review of writer Dow Mossman’s ambitious literary debut, The Stones of Summer. Moskowitz purchased the novel but abandoned it after reading 20 pages. A quarter-century later, the filmmaker gave the book another try and found himself transfixed. Coming up empty in his search to find subsequent works by Mossman, he discovered that The Stones of Summer and its creator had virtually disappeared from literary history.

Having directed more than 3,000 political commercials as well as promotional spots for athletes, musicians, and other public figures, the balding, mustachioed Moskowitz serves as the affable protagonist of his first feature-length documentary. The director isn’t particularly concerned with persuading us that The Stones of Summer is a lost classic. The few snippets he includes of Mossman’s florid prose suggest that this hefty novel about youthful rebellion might well be a prolix tome in the unreadable tradition of Marguerite Young’s Miss MacIntosh, My Darling and Harold Brodkey’s The Runaway Soul.

Moskowitz’s quest, which ripens into an obsession, is merely to find out what became of Mossman, a fellow obsessive who devoted six years to the composition and revision of his only novel. Along the way, the mission expands to explore the relationship between writers and readers and the state of serious fiction in contemporary culture.

In Stone Reader’s first half, Moskowitz, accompanied by cameraman Joe Vandergast, conducts a series of interviews with writers, editors, and reviewers to seek traces of Mossman and discuss more general topics, including one-book authors (Emily Brontë, Margaret Mitchell, Harper Lee) and groundbreaking first novels (Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22). His most prominent subjects, none of whom possess any awareness of Mossman or his writing, include Robert Gottlieb, who edited Catch-22; Frank Conroy, who required nearly 20 years to pen a successor to his acclaimed first novel, Stop-Time; and Leslie Fiedler, the erstwhile wild man of American lit-crit, now palsied and touchingly frail.

After reaching an apparent dead end, Moskowitz takes a hiatus, then picks up Mossman’s trail at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he locates novelist William Cotter Murray, Mossman’s former teacher. This encounter leads to the solution of the Mossman mystery, which viewers should be allowed to discover for themselves.

Smoothly but never slickly rendered, Stone Reader is engrossing and entertaining, but also somewhat perplexing. One can’t help speculating that the filmmaker might have fiddled with the timeline of his search to yield a more dramatic narrative. Why, for example, did Moskowitz wait so long before going to Iowa, where Mossman’s manuscripts and former acquaintances were easily accessible? And why did he pad Stone Reader to over two hours, when the film would have benefited from some judicious pruning (most notably the shots showing Moskowitz engaged in yard work at his rustic Pennsylvania home)?

For bookish moviegoers perpetually in need of shelf space for new acquisitions, Stone Reader strikes a responsive chord, even if its coda affirming a future for literature—Moskowitz’s daughter’s excitement at the arrival of a new Harry Potter book—seems a bit forced. If the film cannot quite match such classic questing documentaries as Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line and Ross McElwee’s Time Indefinite, its intensely personal premise and sure-handed execution place it just a few steps behind.

Although Lawless Heart was written for the screen by the directorial team of Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter, it employs such self-consciously novelistic devices as depicting events from several perspectives, scrambling chronology, and interweaving the narratives of multiple characters. The film’s venturesome form is its most compelling aspect. The stories it tells are less arresting.

Set in a village in Essex, England, Lawless Heart opens and closes with excerpts from home movies featuring a young man named Stuart. Hunsinger and Hunter then cut to Stuart’s funeral, organized by Nick (Tom Hollander), his business partner and lover, and attended by family and friends. At the reception, Dan (Bill Nighy), Stuart’s urbane, disillusioned brother-in-law, flirts with elegant Corrine (Clémentine Célarié), a flower-shop owner. But the sexual hunger that she awakens in Dan subsequently finds release with a different, less romantic partner.

At this point, the filmmakers spirit us back to Stuart’s funeral and a scene that we’ve already observed, but this time it’s photographed from a different angle. Here Lawless Heart picks up Nick’s story. Disoriented by his lover’s accidental death, Nick finds himself opening up to Charlie (Sukie Smith), a slutty, warmhearted supermarket checker whom he discovers naked in his bed following a party. When this relationship evolves from platonic to erotic, Nick becomes even more confused and vulnerable.

Another flashback to the funeral and the focus shifts to Tim (Douglas Henshall), a restless drifter who has returned home for the first time in eight years. He, too, becomes involved with a local woman: Leah (Josephine Butler), a pretty dress-shop clerk. Tim’s impulse to make a commitment to her is overshadowed by his suspicion that she’s haunted by a previous, unresolved relationship.

Lawless Heart’s formal gambit pays off in a series of incisively witty touches. A character barely glimpsed in the background of one story may turn out to be a central figure in a subsequent narrative. Objects introduced in one scene—a bouquet of flowers, a sugar bowl—take on more complex, even contradictory significance when seen from a different viewpoint.

But Hunsinger and Hunter prove less resourceful as storytellers. Despite the uniformly expressive contributions of a gifted acting ensemble, the characters and situations tend to be undernourished, probably because so many were required to flesh out the writer-directors’ elaborate design. Though Stuart’s sudden death quickens the hearts and minds of the three male protagonists, the courses of action they take lead to fairly predictable, shallowly ironic denouements.

The blueprint that Hunsinger and Hunter have drawn would have required a film at least twice as long as Lawless Heart to realize. But at a time when few movies contain enough formal ideas to stuff an olive, it would be ungenerous to nitpick the work of two filmmakers clearly en route to creating a masterpiece. CP