LFF REVIEW: “Personal and poignant telling of an iconic gay landmark” – Circus Of Books (2019)

★ ★ ★ ★

Crucially, Circus of Books remains honest to the intentions of the Mason family.

Rachel Mason’s documentary is about her parents, a bookshop and the gay community. 

In 1982, Karen and Barry Mason took over Circus of Books: a gay book and pornographic store in West Hollywood. But for the Mason family at home “You don’t talk about family business.” Rachel, Micah and Josh were completely unaware of their parents’ job. Rachel Mason, Karen and Barry’s daughter, is the director of this film, documenting and reflecting on her parents’ commitment and contribution.

Using both family footage from when Rachel and her brothers were kids, alongside archival material of the gay cruising scene at the time, there is a clear distinction made between family and work that Karen and Barry established. At home, family life was conventional and their children were kept completely in the dark about the nature of their parents’ work.

Mason focuses on her mother as she unravels the nature of this family business. Karen is the more outspoken of Mason’s parents. As one of the employees of Circus of Books muses, “she wears the pants.” Raised with conservative and religious values, there is a real disconnect between Karen’s core values and the business she runs. Having to face up to this, Mason shows her mother’s journey of acceptance and tolerance. Clearly, Karen has accepted the nature of her job, standing in front of a wall display of dildos she remarks, “This wall would do well.”

Karen in front of a wall covered in  penis dildos

Karen and Mason are both subject-and-filmmaker as well as parent-and-child. The snappy, and occasionally snarky comments that fly between them is so indicative of a mother-daughter relationship. From Karen mumbling, “I don’t know why you think this is worth documenting” to Mason stopping her mother mid-sentence to fix her mic pack, Circus of Books is made all the more charmingly for it.

While these light-hearted moments offer plenty of humorous opportunity, Mason also finds time for more serious contemplations of her parent’s involvement with the LGBTQ+ community and how they bared witness to the tragedy of the AIDS crisis. Mason respectfully integrates coverage of the AIDS epidemic while acknowledging her parents positioning as not being directly affected. Here, Circus of Books slows its pace and captures a sincere moment of reflection. Karen and Barry could only stand by and watch as some of their employees and customers left the store and never returned. They unintentionally became stand-in parents for many young gay people at the time, making phone calls to urge their parents to visit their child. This admittance is heart-breaking. Through the devastation there is a heart-warming sense of gratitude shared by the local gay community for the Mason family, an unsuspecting couple who provided a space of acceptance for them in LA.

Karen and Mason standing with proud smiles at their store

“They’re not offended, they’re not scandalised” and in the adult film industry there is little room for that. LA was the ‘porn capital.’ At the time, a collection of religious politicians were determined to remove this ‘obscenity’ from society, threatening the Mason’s livelihood. Circus of Books was targeted in a sting operation in order to remove pornographic material from shelves. The heart of their business had the potential to be the thing that ended the company. Larry Flynt, gay magazine producer, puts it perfectly: “The greatest right a government can afford its people is to be left alone.” 

“At one point, we were probably the biggest distributor of hardcore gay films in the United States”, Karen explains, but now, their business is barely staying afloat with their customer base turning to free content provided by the internet. Perhaps because the person behind the camera is their daughter, a real openness is afforded. An honest reality of the Mason’s world is able to shine through in an ode to the trials and tribulations that this family have faced.

Crucially, Circus of Books remains honest to the intentions of the Mason family, harnessing Rachel Mason’s insider point-of-view, the documentary can move past showy reveals to allow the story of her parents to be the main pull of this film. A personal and poignant telling of an iconic gay landmark becomes rooted in emotionally infused discussion. Mason’s angle is measured and sensible and her parents make the ideal subject for her film.

Dir: Karen Mason.

Prod:  Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson, Cynthia Childs, Adam Baran, Camilla Hall.

With: Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Rachel Mason, Micah Mason, Josh Mason, Larry Flynt, Jeff Stryker, Alaska Thunderfuck, Alexei Romanoff, Freddie Bercovitz, Phil Tarley.