At Haverford College’s library, Moskowitz is ready to get down to work on a promotional film for the school. The people he’s scheduled to interview are late, and he has already finished charming the morning sun that floods the stacks into lighting his settings just right. An impressive spread of complimentary pastries does nothing to moderate his impatience, but predictably, the volumes surrounding him do. “I’ll go read some books while I’m waiting,” says Moskowitz. “That’s the best part of being here.” The baseball cap he’s wearing makes him look even more like a kid in a candy shop as he grabs a selection that he started reading during previous engagements at the library. “I’ve read a third of this by now,” he says, holding up the memoir by hard-living jazz-musician-turned-painter Larry Rivers, What Did I Do?: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Larry Rivers. He reads aloud passages of essays from The Sociology of Art and Literature.

Next he peruses the books recommended by Haverford’s Class of 2007 for 2003, while making recommendations of his own to one of his film crew members. “The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins is a great read. Oh, Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Cunningham. Did you read that?” Don DeLillo, White Noise. Alan Furst, Night Soldiers. Janet Hobhouse, The Furies. His addiction to books is surpassed only by his addiction to communing with other junkies.

But when his first film interviewee shows up, he must take off the baseball cap and put on the headphones. Moskowitz warms up his subject by asking him friendly questions, and at some indiscernible point, begins filming footage. Exactly when he throws the switch from making small talk to prompting the man for film-worthy pronouncements is anyone’s guess.

For 24 years it has been Moskowitz’s job to put people’s most compelling moments on celluloid. In addition to institutional films, he has produced television commercials for more than 600 Democratic political candidates, including former Philadelphia Mayor Wilson Goode, former mayor and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell C’65 Hon’00, and former vice president and 2000 presidential candidate Al Gore. “It’s not that I was always interested in politics. I was apathetic and soured on the system,” Moskowitz says. “I got into political ads strictly as a directorial challenge. I’d already done ads for tractors. With political ads, marketing concepts instead of objects means we’re changing the way people think. We’re telling a nonfiction story.”

By “we,” Moskowitz means Point of View Productions, the company he started with Robert Ellis. Ellis is now a bestselling author whose second novel, The Dead Room, is set at Penn. He appears in a Stone Reader scene in which Moskowitz wonders why academics ever made such a big deal over Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, which he considers, like all classics, to be no more worthy of reading than books students choose themselves. “When Mark and I work on political ads together,” says Ellis, “we suit up and go into the war.”

Moskowitz’s arsenal for campaigners includes both positive and negative ads. “I don’t prefer doing one kind over the other,” he says. “That would be like preferring a running play over a passing play in football. I don’t care. It’s whatever wins the game.”

Many attest that Moskowitz helped pioneer political-ad making. Sinclair, who produces national commercials, says, “In the 1970s, political commercials were more visually and editorially primitive. In old ads, a politician might have just been standing in front of City Hall asking for votes,” he says. “Mark was one of the first to really take advantage of the subliminal power of different settings, of lighting a candidate at a conference table like he might be lit in a feature film, for example. In a sense he figured out how to glamorize candidates for greater appeal. Now his methods are copied widely.”

Moskowitz says, “I think we helped define the form and were often ahead of the curve because we started doing this from the beginning of the political-ad explosion around 1980.” Before then, the majority of congressional clients, which are now the bulk of the political-ad
business, didn’t use TV to advertise. Computerized polling helped change that, and it’s polling that allowed TV to have great impact by targeting audiences with messages condensed into 30 seconds—an impact that could be tracked and proven effective. One of the first commercials he ever made taught voters in Philadelphia how to split the ticket to avoid electing Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who remained on the ballot even after being expelled from Congress for accepting bribes during the ABSCAM scandal.

All in a day’s work, Moskowitz chooses track record for a voiceover because focus-group members preferred it over experience. He films a powerful incumbent in a cornfield to make him more accessible, and matches the demographics of the adoring on-screen constituents to those of the ad’s target audience. And he keeps his camera on the pulse of society’s predilections. “In the 1980s, we had to steer away from suggestions of a female candidate’s femininity or motherhood,” he says. “Now, femininity and motherhood sell.” He even helps candidates define their positions. “Sometimes they have no visions, or they don’t know how issues play to the electorate,” Moskowitz says. That wasn’t a problem with Al Gore. “He was in his thirties when I worked with him. Super-smart guy who knew his stuff cold. He wasn’t great at working in the team way that’s required, but he got better as we went along. Candidates often think the campaign works for them, when it’s really the other way around.”

To turn shots into spots, Moskowitz sits at double monitors using “Speed Razor” software to order frames, overlay text, insert jump cuts. He started using digital tools in his work the minute they became available (and ironically, such tools helped him assemble Stone Reader, which addresses the demise of the novel in the digital age). Luckily, the cutting-room floor is in cyberspace, because much of the actual floor is already covered with videos, other work materials, and his overprotective beagle.

Those close to him repeatedly cite how Moskowitz’s ability to focus on the creative process seems to thrive, paradoxically, in the company of chaotic surroundings and a mind spinning in 20 directions at once. “Mark doesn’t care what’s around him. Nothing gets in the way of what he wants to do,” says John Diliberto C’76, a music consultant for Stone Reader and host of Echoes, a music show heard nightly on WXPN.

Moskowitz acknowledges the tremendous help he receives to make it through 30-hour editing sessions and more. Freelance producer Jessica Shamash, who says she’s known Moskowitz “long enough to know where he’s left bits of his brain,” pieces together his schedule—one day he’s off to New York to get footage of a baseball game to run during a filmed interview with a Red Sox executive, the next he’s flying to England to premiere Stone Reader at an international documentary festival. Then there’s the support that comes from his wife, Clare Quinn C’76. She has to admit that the hubbub over Stone Reader has made her feel like a single parent of the couple’s three children. “Mark will tell me, ‘It’ll be over in a couple of months,’ but it’s never over,” she says. Still, she’s behind his making another movie. “He needs to do work that’s artistically meaningful to him. There’s no project I’d ever ask him not to do.”

Another endeavor of her husband’s is the nonprofit organization Lost Books Club, which he founded with donations while finishing Stone Reader in 2001, to bring back out-of-print and under-appreciated books. “People send me books, even manuscripts, with notes like, ‘Look what my father wrote; it was buried for 50 years,’” says Moskowitz. “With everything you find, someone has probably read it and loved it.” The first out-of-print book the club sought to reintroduce was, naturally, The Stones of Summer, originally published by the now-defunct Bobbs-Merrill. Last October, Barnes and Noble republished the novel. After company CEO Steve Riggio saw Stone Reader, he bought a rare copy of The Stones of Summer on e-Bay, paying, thanks to the cult status conferred by the movie, $1,775. “It’s a complex and challenging book, and immensely satisfying,” says Riggio. “After only one month, we sold over 10,000 copies, which is phenomenal.” But he defers to Moskowitz’s influence when it comes to putting books into people’s hands. “When I first met Mark, I said, ‘I’m happy to meet the greatest bookseller in the world.’”

Because Stone Reader is not about what books speak to people, but how and why they speak to people, viewers learn nothing about The Stones of Summer. And prospective viewers might want to stop reading now if they also don’t want to know if Moskowitz ever found its elusive author, Dow Mossman.

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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/19/04

FEATURE:
The Constant Reader
By Holly Love
Illustration by Brian Cronin

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