Rachel Mason’s mother never thought her art would go anywhere. No matter how many galleries and museums showed her work she would always be a failure, her career so far underground it may as well be six feet under. How beautifully ironic, then, that a film about her mother (and her father, too) is the very thing bringing Mason’s work mainstream in a major way, since it just debuted on Netflix under Ryan Murphy’s oversight.
“Circus of Books” takes its name from the gay porn bookstore Karen and Barry Mason owned, overseeing two locations in Los Angeles for over thirty years. Not only is “Circus of Books” a lively and entertaining record of a vital piece of LGBTQ history, the film is also a deeply personal story about faith, living honestly, familial wounds, and the creative process. Mason turns the camera on her family in brave and often painful ways, lovingly molding her mother’s contradictions into a fascinating character study. It is the closest thing to Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” to come out since that particular non-fiction masterpiece, and it just so happens to include a few porn stars. Such delightfully unexpected juxtaposition makes it easily the best LGBTQ documentary of the year.
Through a tangential connection to Larry Flynt, the Masons began distributing porn independently in the mid-1970s. After becoming Flynt’s biggest Los Angeles distributor, they took over the lease on Circus of Books, which was then called Book Circus (they flipped the sign around to save a little moola). As many attest in the film, Circus of Books was much more than a porn shop for the generations of gay men who shopped, cruised, and sometimes hooked up there. The store was a lifeline, a community gathering space, and a surrogate family for young gay men who came to Los Angeles in search of precisely those things. Learning just how important her parents and their store were to so many people helped Mason see her mother in a different light.
“My parents became surrogate parents for a generation that had no parents,” Mason said. “That is a really critical piece of gay history. When you look at the unwritten chapters in queer history, gay history is an unwritten history.”
One of the most moving chapters in the film portrays the Masons’ activism and avid support for their employees throughout the AIDS crisis. Barry becomes emotional remembering a phone call he made to one employee’s father telling him his son was dying. The father’s response? “I never want to see the guy again.”
“My parents were just this normal Jewish couple being there at the end, and I wanted to highlight that section of the film in as profound a way as possible,” said Mason. “I feel like that’s where the Jewish values that my parents had override any sense of the self-righteous bullshit people use when they disown their kids in the name of religion.”
Much of the conflict in the film comes from Karen’s Judaism, which led her to hide the business from friends and family for most of Rachel Mason’s life. The Masons were raised attending a conservative Jewish synagogue, which Mason described as “classic, regimented, very intensely patriarchal.”
“What’s so weird to me is that she’s very progressive and yet she could totally absorb this really nasty, in my mind, patriarchal bullshit,” said Mason. Her religious commitment is part of what leads Karen to react poorly when Mason’s brother, Josh, came out as gay. The hypocrisy and contradiction provides a poignant and at times uncomfortable tension throughout the film.
“The movie would not be interesting if it was just about my dad, he’s just sort of a fun-loving guy who did respond well to my brother,” Mason said. “But my mom completely had this double life. The movie is only interesting because there was this massive conflict in her mind.”
Of course, there are plenty of interesting things about the movie. But Karen’s early career as a journalist, Barry’s involvement in the invention of dialysis machines, the couple’s ingenuity in recognizing a market for gay porn, and Karen’s deep inner conflict about the way she was supporting her family, all paint a fascinating portrait.
“She steered the ship, and her feeling about it being this dangerous secret is what led to her being intolerant, as crazy as that is, because she was also so tolerant,” said Mason. “But I’ve also thought a second piece of the intolerance is trying to keep up appearances, because you have to overcompensate. So why did my mom feel the need to have us be high achieving kids? ‘Cause she’s running a gay porn store and she worried we would lose all our friends, so upholding appearances was a really big part of that conflict.”
The pressure Karen put on the kids is apparent in her interactions with her daughter. Though Mason never appears in talking head interviews like her brothers, she is present through her questions and obvious rapport with her parents. One of the biggest laughs in the film arrives when Karen tells Mason behind the camera: “I don’t know what you’re gonna make out of all this filming. No one is going to be interested in this.”
It’s funny, but also sad — which is often the best kind of funny.
“It’s sort of denigrating what I do, and there’s this piece of it that is hurtful, but it’s also really fascinating ’cause that’s what I wanted to expose in creating the film,” said Mason. “I know what my mom did was really important, even if she’s gonna tell me how much what I do doesn’t matter. In a weird way it became like I was trying to prove something, and I think I did prove something. She has always felt that I’m a failure, and I think I also absorbed that myself. And this film took me to a place of recognizing that something I created actually could reach a wider audience.”
“Circus of Books” is currently streaming on Netflix.