Director: Rachel Mason
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Within every family there are secrets, but rarely is that secret that your parents own a gay hard-core porn shop. Filmmaker Rachel Mason found out in school that Circus of Books, her parents’ bookshop in L.A., didn’t stock books about circuses. Later in life when she discovered that the shop was about to be closed, she decided to make a documentary about her parents and the shop. The result is a surprisingly moving film about loss.
The Circus of Books wasn’t just a porn shop, but a community centre of sorts. From the 1960s up to 2019, gay men had felt safe among its stack of magazines and VHS videos. The men could meet there; pick each other up there. But since the internet, porn is now free and so the shop’s aisles are empty and videos that no-one will watch are discounted in piles. The shop is a testament to a lost era.
The men who were lost in the AIDS epidemic of the 80s and 90s also haunt the shop; the men who worked there who Mason’s parents would later visit in hospices, the men who shopped there, and the porn stars themselves who still adorn the covers of the videos, still muscular and still virile. Interviews with Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler and probably America’s most famous pornographer, and Jeff Stryker, the international porn star of the 1980s, add to the sense of melancholy here.
Mason’s parents are the perfect subjects for this often very funny documentary, acquired by Netflix. Her father, Barry, is open and carefree while her mother, Karen, is prickly and practical, not convinced that anyone will want to watch her daughter’s film. ‘Go make a collage instead’ she tells Mason. Barry and Karen are accidental pornographers; before they produced porn films they produced dialysis machines.
Using a mixture of news footage, and grainy unobtrusive reconstructions, Mason follows her parents –her mother often reluctant – as they prepare to close down Circus of Books. The film is slickly made, but the most recent years in the shop’s history seem rushed, as it focuses more on its earlier periods. We only see glimpses of how its potential closure will affect the West Hollywood community. But then again, perhaps, tragically, there’s very little to say.
This confident and poignant film comes at the right time as the digital age and gentrification destroy urban landscapes for good. Circus of Books is also a compassionate portrayal of her parents, and proves that change is possible. This is such a fine film that we will have to hope that there are more skeletons in Mason’s family closet waiting to be discovered.
The BFI London Film Festival ran from 2 October to 13 October