Movie Review: Circus of Books

For most people, the thought of owning a book store is something along the lines of The NeverEnding Story or Notting Hill. You imagine a quaint offbeat shop where fellow like-minded book lovers can peruse in a quiet and peaceful shrine to ink, paper and coffee. When someone says, “my parents run a book shop”… you imagine a mom and pops store where things move slowly and books age gracefully. This is the central premise and inherent comedy at the heart of the authentic, colourful and nostalgic documentary, Circus of Books.

Karen and Barry Mason may seem like an ordinary married couple. A former journalist and special effects wizard, the straight Jewish couple led a pretty typical American life with one exception… they became the biggest distributors of hardcore gay porn in the United States. While the subject matter may be quite racy, this documentary is an intimate character portrait of the Mason family. Exploring the lives of an ordinary Jewish family running a risque business in Los Angeles, the real focus here is on Karen, Barry and their family.

The story plays out against the decades of change from a sociopolitical standpoint through morality campaigns, misconceptions around AIDS, the Los Angeles gay community, the transition into the digital age and how it impacted their family and business. It’s a fascinating documentary about how the Circus of Books came to be, served as a hub for the gay community and even led its owners to become producers of gay porn. The documentary includes magazine covers, video clips and various paraphernalia, yet these displays are more informational than gratuitous and treated with restraint.

“Seriously though… I was adopted, right?”

Circus of Books is directed by their daughter, Rachel, who has unprecedented access to photo albums, home video footage with special insights into their family dynamics. Watching old home videos, paging through photo albums and including documentary footage that actually did make the final cut gives it an honest, fly-on-the-wall feel. Almost always happy to participate, the documentary serves as a truth and reconciliation of sorts, allowing Barry and Karen to share every detail of their enterprise and giving the family space to come to terms with its overall influence and significance. This confessional journey adds an element of suspense to counterbalance the humourous undercurrent.

From porn mogul Larry Flynt to gay porn superstar, Ted Stryker, the interviews are authentic, varied and entertaining much like Circus of Books itself. Rachel Mason goes on to interview associated film-makers, former employees and family members to get a broad overview and account for the “book” store’s many facets. Set against decades of change in Los Angeles and American society keeps the story evolving with quirky family dynamics playing out in the foreground. Moving through the ages and radical changes with their family remaining a constant, the unlikely gay porn shop owners help sustain the comedic premise as the film takes on a tender and heartwarming tone.

From dalliances with the law to living double lives, this multi-generational tale is loaded with human interest and encompasses a rich spectrum of emotion. Entertaining and surprising, the storytelling is vivid enough to immerse you in their “Wonder Years” and infotaining enough to provide a layered backdrop of the Zeitgeist. On the surface it may be offensive to some yet its heart is pure and end-of-an-era story is compelling.

The bottom line: Colourful