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Film Review: Entertaining “Circus of Books” Tells the Strange Tale of Accidental Pornographers

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 22nd, 2020

Film poster: “Circus of Books”

Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

Rachel Mason grew up afraid to tell her friends what her parents did for a living, at least once she was old enough to understand what it was they did. Were they drug dealers, assassins, or perhaps something worse, like politicians? No! Karen and Barry Mason were, instead, pornographers … of a sort. Perhaps “accidental pornographers” is a better description, for the spouses – an otherwise staid, conservative Jewish couple – fell into the gig when other work opportunities didn’t quite pan out. She by training was a journalist, and he a special-effects technician. Hardly what one might think of as a lead-in to where they ended up, but why not?

In 1982, the Masons took over the Book Circus store in West Hollywood, California (renaming it “Circus of Books”), and became full-time purveyors of, among other items, gay pornography (they also promoted LGBTQ writers), after having first become distributors for Larry Flint’s publications. Now, their daughter Rachel has a new documentary (out on Netflix today) about their (and her and her two brothers’) experience, following the family from that time of prosperity to the final closing of the bookstore in 2019. Made with great conviviality of spirit, the film takes us through the unlikely trajectory of Karen and Barry through the world of dirty books and pictures.

Karen and Barry Mason of CIRCUS OF BOOKS ©Netflix

Though sometimes too digressive for its own good, Circus of Books is often terrific fun, allowing its subjects – including all members of the Mason family and many of the store’s employees and customers – to have their say about the highs and lows of the collective experience. Beyond the smut, the store was a haven, in those pre-internet years, for those looking for like-minded souls (and bodies, for a fair amount of crusing took place there, as well). Interestingly, when one son, Josh, eventually came out of the closet, this announcement was met with some resistance by Karen. Now that’s a disconnect, indeed.

By the end, we have come to love the characters, inconsistencies and all. Director Rachel Mason (The Lives of Hamilton Fish) mostly manages to square the challenging cinematic circle of turning a personal home movie into mass-market entertainment, thanks to her (one would hope) familiarity with the subject and a sharp sense of how to mix archival and more recent footage. Like a seasoned ringmaster, she keeps this circus well in line.

“You must be 18 years to enter,” from CIRCUS OF BOOKS ©Netflix

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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