Circus of Books
- Emma Simmonds
- 21 April 2020
Delightfully enjoyable stranger-than-fiction documentary about the unlikely proprietors of a porn shop
A woman making a film about her parents' specialist bookshop doesn't sound enormously enticing. But when the mom-and-pop-store in question is described as 'a purveyor of gourmet sexual material for every pervert in America' things suddenly get a lot more interesting. Rachel Mason charts the story of family business and LA institution Circus of Books, a hardcore gay porn store which, for decades, provided a safe space for the local queer community. In between large doses of erotica, of course.
Although she and her two brothers grew up pretty oblivious to their parents' profession, Rachel knows she's got gold here now, making the most of the endlessly unlikely fusion of a fairly conservative Jewish couple, Karen and Barry, and the shamelessly sordid world of adult entertainment, an area they almost fell into.
Unabashed in its idiosyncrasies and indulgences, which lend it character and charm, the film perhaps lacks the artistry of something similarly personal like Stories We Tell, but Rachel does a fine job of contextualising her parents' work. Her documentary weaves together archive and home movie footage illustrating the store's rise and fall against a backdrop of anti and pro-gay protests, the AIDS epidemic, and Reagan's war on pornography, which brought with it the attention of the FBI.
Affectionate interviews with ex-employees and collaborators add colour and emphasise the Masons' significance on the scene. When personalities like Larry Flynt and Jeff Stryker have warm words about your very unassuming mum and dad it's a strange situation indeed. But it turns out that Karen and Barry's very wholesomeness was crucial to their success, as people were keen to work with such a trustworthy couple in an industry where such a thing was rare.
The anomalousness of their association never gets old as this delightful, seemingly innocent couple stock up on lube at an expo, and lament the loss of Handjobs magazine. Barry remains a perpetually smiling, sweet-natured presence, even when describing death threats. The spikier Karen provides the conflict as she bickers with and sometimes belittles her daughter, but speaks with humility about the challenges of reconciling her work with her strong adherence to the Jewish faith, and her sometimes disastrous parenting missteps. As a director, Rachel keeps things peppy but confessions from Karen, as well as Rachel's gay brother Josh, give it genuine emotional pull.
Available to watch on Netflix from Wed 22 Apr.