'Circus of Books': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Rachel Mason
Obscenely poignant.

Rachel Mason explores and pays tribute to the legacy of her porn-shop-running parents in this very funny, very moving documentary.

"These are called cock rings," says Karen Mason as she unloads a recent shipment of pornographic supplies. The sight of this evidently sweet, gray-haired and bespectacled older woman nonchalantly handling such intimate apparel (not to mention VHS videocassettes with titles like The Sum of All Feet) rises below vulgarity, as Mel Brooks might say. Gut-busting as the moment is, however, it's no joke. This has been Karen's life for many years, as one of two managers — alongside her endearingly nerdy husband, Barry — of the West Hollywood-based adult store Circus of Books.

What led such an unlikely pair into this line of work? That's what Rachel Mason, one of Karen and Barry's three children, explores in this very funny, very moving documentary. The filmmaker does right by front-loading most of the snicker-worthy scenes. She knows that even the most open-minded among us need to get past a certain level of shock and incredulity to see Karen and Barry as the beautiful, and beautifully complicated, people they are.

In the early going, there are enough revelations that might justify a movie all their own. There's Karen's early journalism career, during which she interviewed future professional contacts like Hustler magazine impresario Larry Flynt (one of several onscreen interviewees). And Barry, a born inventor, worked for a while as a special-effects technician on both 2001: A Space Odyssey and the original Star Trek TV series, the lessons from which he parlayed into a semi-successful business designing a safety component for dialysis machines.

The adult store was initially just a lark, a way to make enough money to support the family that Karen and Barry were then starting. Yet they stuck with it, and not only due to its lucrativeness. (At the store's height in the 1980s, the Masons got into gay porn film distribution, releasing, among other titles, the Jeff Stryker classic Stryker Force). Circus of Books also provided a genuine haven for a primarily gay male clientele under siege from repressive powers-that-be, in addition to a disease (AIDS) that was quickly decimating the community.

Both Karen and Barry would likely shrug off the philanthropic side of their work, a testament to their humbleness, but also to some of their own hangups. Rachel isn't interested in portraying her parents as infallible saints, particularly in regards to Karen's devout Jewish faith and how that led to some strain, since resolved, with her youngest son Josh, who came out during college.

The nature of the world at the time that Circus of Books was most profitable (a second branch was even opened up in the Silver Lake neighborhood) actively encouraged compartmentalization. Karen could work in and for the gay community as long as it didn't taint the very regular life she was also trying to cultivate. And both parents never discussed their business with family or friends, going to sometimes comical lengths to hide the fact. If they happened to stop by the store, the young Masons were instructed by their mother to "look down." (Sure they did.)

As Circus of Books goes on, the extreme contradictions of the family's life come to the fore. Of course, the whole situation was untenable. But in the long run, the bond between parents and children was strengthened. Karen even became a leading member of PFLAG.

Yet if the Masons' humanity ultimately flowed, the need for an underground safe space like Circus of Books ebbed. There's a mournful, though pragmatic aura to the closing scenes in which Karen and Barry prepare to permanently shut the doors on their business. The digital revolution (hookup apps like Grindr and the easy accessibility of porn online), as well as a growing acceptance of behaviors once wholly taboo, ensured that inevitability.

For better and for worse, things change. But perhaps the loss is also a gain, since it finally allows the two families (biological and surrogate) that Karen and Barry cultivated to comfortably coexist.

Cast: Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Larry Flynt, Justin Honard (aka Alaska Thunderfuck), Jeff Stryker
Director: Rachel Mason
Screenwriters: Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson
Producers: Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson, Cynthia Childs, Adam Baran, Camilla Hall
Executive producers: Ryan Murphy, Josh Braun, John Battsek, Rhianon Jones, Gerald Herman
Consulting producer: Bob Hawk
Director of photography: Gretchen Warthen
Editor: Kathryn Robson
Composer: Ian Colletti

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Sales: Josh Braun (Submarine)

92 minutes