Had I seen it before: I’d seen the beginning before but fallen asleep before I finished it.
Director: Rachel Mason
What IMDb says: In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason had fallen on hard times and were looking for a way to support their young family when they answered an ad in the Los Angeles Times. Larry Flynt was seeking distributors for Hustler Magazine. What was expected to be a brief sideline led to their becoming fully immersed in the LGBT community as they took over a local store, Circus of Books. A decade later, they had become the biggest distributors of gay porn in the US. The film focuses on the double life they led, trying to maintain the balance of being parents at a time when LGBT culture was not yet accepted. Their many challenges included facing jail time for a federal obscenity prosecution and enabling their store to be a place of refuge at the height of the AIDS crisis. Circus of Books offers a rare glimpse into an untold chapter of queer history, and it is told through the lense of the owners’ own daughter, Rachel Mason, an artist, filmmaker, and musician.
Why I picked it: Sometimes you’re just in the mood for a documentary, and this one looked interesting.
What I liked: I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a documentary that both addresses a serious social issue and still left me feeling so warm and fuzzy by the end. Circus of Books is a story of how seemingly ordinary people can make huge contributions to larger political movements. Karen and Barry are incredibly endearing people. They come off as the type you would’ve loved to have in your family, as neighbors, as bosses, or as friends. What makes their story interesting is that it’s not about two people who set out to be activists involved in politics, but how simply being nice, empathetic human beings naturally lead them to activism and politics. They didn’t always have the views they have now, but they’re compassionate people who were willing to listen to people unlike themselves and grow as the result of it. We need more stories like that. What makes Circus of Books refreshing is precisely how apolitical it feels. The simple act of compassion towards gay people and sex workers isn’t portrayed as some brave act of heroism or activism, but as baseline human decency. Any bravery and heroism was simply a byproduct of that.
Yet Circus of Books also doesn’t make light of the discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ people, especially back in the 1980s. People born in the early ’90s such as myself don’t always have the best frame of reference for just how extreme anti-LGBT sentiments were through most of the 20th century. I’m lucky enough to live in a world where it’s not necessarily easy to be gay, but at least there are fairly public resources and support systems in place for these groups. I’m lucky enough to live in a time when an HIV diagnosis does not automatically equate to a death sentence. It’s easy for people my age to take that sort of thing for granted, especially if they’re not directly affected by that sort of discrimination. People should know this aspect of American history regardless of their sexuality. Circus of Books presents it in a fairly optimistic package, and shines a light on the great strides that LGBTQ+ activists have made in the last four decades.
What I didn’t like: The film is fine as is, but the story is also multi-faceted enough that it easily could’ve been a half hour longer without losing its appeal. It makes the most of its 92 minute runtime, but you’re getting the short version of a lot of issues moreso than an in-depth look at any single issue. Shameless self plug: I’ve also reviewed How to Survive a Plague which focuses specifically on the AIDS crisis and the activism movement surrounding it, and that context was incredibly helpful for understanding this movie. I highly recommend it!
Will I watch it again: I might. I don’t rewatch documentaries all that often though, so even if I don’t that says nothing about the quality of this documentary.
Who would enjoy it: People who enjoy historical stories told through unorthodox lenses.