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The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

‘Circus of Books’ Finds Humor and Humanity in a Mom and Pop Gay Porn Store

Written by: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer


Personal documentaries are always a questionable subgenre. To be asked to watch filmmakers delve into their or their families’ pasts can sometimes come off as self-serving or cloying, an assumption that what is interesting to them is naturally of interest to the entire world. That is, happily, not the case with Circus of Books, a film that takes a strange, unlikely family story and makes it universal.

Circus of Books is directed by Rachel Mason, a young woman who grew up in West Hollywood with her mother, father, and two brothers. At first glance, they’re a pretty standard nuclear family, with a deeply religious mother, an easy-going, cheerful father, and all the ups and downs, repressions, joys, and anxieties of most American families. The difference here is that Mom and Dad run Circus of Books, one of West Hollywood’s premiere bookshops for gay pornography. The humor of this sweet, elderly Jewish couple running a gay porn store in West Hollywood gives way fairly quickly as the film delves into their personalities, their past, and their reasons for acquiring the shop in the first place. Interspersed in this are Rachel and her brothers’ stories, their realization of what their parents did for a living, and the way that this personally affects their relationships and their own sexualities. What’s charming – and disarming – about Circus of Books is the kind, intelligent way in which the subject matter is treated, as the Masons discuss their experience with obscenity charges, investment in gay porn films, the AIDS crisis, and the centrality of themselves and the bookstore to the world the West Hollywood and Santa Monica Boulevard gay community.

Circus of Books takes not the Masons themselves as subjects, but the gay community as a whole, as Rachel interviews her brothers, family members, former employees, friends, and patrons of the bookstore in an effort to understand how her parents and their shop influenced and gave space to a historically marginalized and criminalized community during the 1980s. The film is not a totally light-hearted romp nor is it devoid of drama, as the AIDS crisis and the Reagan administration’s obscenity trials illuminate. But it provides a message of hope and positivity at a time when we might, perhaps, be all too accustomed to looking at the dark side of things. It allows the humor to come in – because it is humorous, after all, to see an elderly woman discussing anal lube, dildos, and varieties of gay pornography – without seeming to mock or condescend to its subjects. Rachel Mason herself knows that this is a serious business with serious, real-world implications for many different people.

The film is presented in a fairly standard documentary style, with a combination of home video footage, talking-head interviews, and real-time conversations between Rachel and her parents. The humanity of the Masons cut through the exploration of the inherent contradictions between the bookstore and themselves – though they might not be gay men, they view the store as a business and their customers with humanity and love. But they also have their limitations, and the film’s most powerful secondary narrative deals with the changing culture of gay rights and the personal issues brought to the fore when one of Masons’ sons comes out.

Circus of Books is a complicated family portrait, illuminating its subjects with love and understanding but also with the mixed emotions to be expected from any family. It’s a reminder of how far the US has come in acceptance of gay rights, legally and culturally, and the centrality of pornography and First Amendment issues to the freedom of gay culture. It’s also a personal reminder that our parents are sometimes far more multifaceted than we realize.

Circus of Books is currently at the Tribeca Film Festival and will stream on Netflix.

Author: Lauren Humphries-Brooks, CC2K Staff Writer

Lauren is a film critic, writer, editor, and angry feminist, with a Masters in Film Studies from NYU and a PhD in making men mad on Twitter.

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