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Another Take: 'Circus of Books' is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)

Movie Reviews

Another Take: ‘Circus of Books’ is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)

A different take on ‘Circus of Books’.

As we were all suddenly bound to our homes for an indeterminate amount of time, most of us watched Netflix’s Tiger King either out of a sense of FOMO, boredom, or the pure trainwreck value of that series (I was very much the latter). The memes, conspiracy theories, and reactions have clogged our feeds for about a month because what can be wilder than a gay, mullet wearing redneck illegal zoo owner putting a hit out on his equally as batshit counterpart?

How about a documentary about a genteel, older Jewish couple who owned a gay porn store in the heart of West Hollywood for over 30 years? What if it was also directed by said couple’s daughter?

Another Take: 'Circus of Books' is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)

Yeah, this is my brand of wild and I was so glad I watched it.

Circus of Books is a Netflix Original documentary about the lives of Karen and Barry Mason and their unlikely footprint in LGBTQ and American history with their bookstore, with the titular title. Directed by their daughter, Rachel Mason, the documentary feels like an unusual warm hug with its heart, devotion, and humor to a straight couple unassumingly running the heartbeat of a gay district.

Compared to most documentaries, the talking heads of Circus of Books is rather intimate with only  those involved in the store and in the Masons’ personal lives. The interviewees are Mr. and Mrs. Mason themselves, their two sons (the director’s brothers), former employees and local activists and customers. Also interviewed are some surprising faces in Alaska Thunderfuck of RuPaul’s Drag Race fame and Hustler creator Larry Flynt. While the Masons are characters of their own, the interviewees apply color to the story and history of Circus of Books with humorous stories of sexual encounters and incidents happening in the store to the sobering anecdotes about former employees passing away during the AIDS Crisis and how Circus of Books was a light of hope for so many queer men.

The stars of the documentary, Mr. and Mrs. Mason, truly steal the show for me and they may have stolen my heart at the end. It is absolutely no surprise that the director wanted to show love to her parents, but she wanted the audience to fall in love with them too. From Mason, capturing the finicky nature of her mother shuffling through newspaper clippings of her time as a reporter in Ohio to filling the screen of her father’s face with a placid smile on his face as he recounts the more exciting moments of the store’s existence.

While it starts out as an unlikely tale of two parents doing what they can to keep food on the table, it turns into a story of censorship, Reagan Administration puritanism, and acceptance. As with anything mildly queer-adjacent, Reaganism comes in and ruins the party! In light of the draconian Meese Report, porn bookstores of all stripes were under siege and Circus of Books was not spared as the Masons find themselves in the crosshairs of a sting operation. While Karen was spared from the charges, Barry was not and was convicted.

In any documentary, something as this pivotal moment would be seen as dramatic, but considering that it is directed by someone who could have lost everything as a result of her father being convicted, it definitely hits harder. After a very component lawyer and a proper understanding of the First Amendment, Circus of Books was spared. Despite surviving their lawsuit kerfuffle, the turn of the 21st Century would prove hard for the Masons.

Another Take: 'Circus of Books' is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)
Circus of Books in its twilight years.

After grappling with one of their sons coming out as gay, the Masons saw the gay world shifting to more digital havens where they can date and form communities in the bosom of digital safety. While that sentence might prove confusing, this documentary truly turns into something special with the way the store’s fate (it sadly closed in February 2019) and growing from their mistakes from their son’s coming out to becoming true allies, not just silent observers.

Circus of Books is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Another Take: 'Circus of Books' is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)
Another Take: ‘Circus of Books’ is pure and intimate (and about a porn store)
Circus of Books
A heartwarming documentary about an unlikely saga.
Reader Rating0 Votes
0
Wonderful tale of LGBTQ American history
Sweet, heartwarming tale filled with animated characters
Laugh out loud funny in some places
Why wasn't this a 7 episode miniseries, Netflix?!
10
Fantastic

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