Karen Mason, Barry Mason, Micah Mason, Rachel Mason, Josh Mason, Fernando Aguilar, Freddie Bercovitz, David Gregory, Larry Flynt
Rachel Mason, Kathryn Robson
It's difficult to describe the experience of watching Circus of Books, a Ryan Murphy produced feature doc directed by Rachel Mason that centers around Mason's own parents, Barry and Karen Mason, whose semblance to Jewish grandparents is undeniable yet whose lives practically define what it means to be truly interesting. Barry is a man of undeniable intelligence, it was Barry's financial struggles that largely kept him from capitalizing on that intelligence. Similarly, Karen's history as a journalist gave way to the family's need for a steady source of income.
Enter, surprisingly enough, Larry Flynt.
A burgeoning producer of porn looking for ways to distribute his publications, Flynt advertised as much and the Masons answered that call. Looking way more like the kind of elderly couple you'd find in your neighborhood bookstore, Barry and Karen Mason instead became the biggest distributors of gay porn in the United States and eventually owners of Circus of Books, an iconic Western Hollywood bookstore and sanctuary for the oft-persecuted LGBTQ community.
The bookstore, which recently closed after three decades though is apparently in a journey of reimagining, serves as the cultural cornerstone for this jam-packed, engaging and entertaining documentary. Mason herself understands both the heart and the humor in her subject matter and capitalizes on both, while she's also fully in touch with the importance of her parents' role in LGBT rights even if she essentially had no clue about it while she was growing up.
No one did.
The source of the Mason's income was a closely guarded secret. This remained true even when federal prosecutors came knocking on their door during the anti-porn Reagan years that saw them threatened with imprisonment.
No one knew.
There's an increasingly remarkable depth to Circus of Books that gets peeled away layer by layer. A queer director herself, Mason seems to have this permanent "deer in headlight" look about her as she follows her parents, and especially her mother, as they prepare to close their store and there's such remarkable power in the increased humanity we discover from both Barry and Karen as their stories are revealed over the course of the film.
Circus of Books endeavors to tackle a lot of information within its 92-minute running time. Barry easily appears to be the more progressive of the two, Karen being guided more by business sense than social justice though we will eventually learn pieces of her background that will cause us to see even her through a different lens. While the film doesn't really tackle Rachel's presence in the LGBTQ community, it gives more attention to the coming out of her brother Josh, a coming out that Barry easily accepted while it took Karen longer to process and work through her own still existing biases and fears. Eventually, both Barry and Karen become active PFLAG members and Circus of Books deals with this all honestly and realistically.
Nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing in a Nonfiction Program, Circus of Books also picked up Best Doc Feature at Camden International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Best Doc Feature at the Sidewalk Film Festival. The film has also been nominated for LGBTQ Documentary of the Year by GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic