Circus of Books (Rachel Mason, 2019, USA)

Circus of Books is an examination of a couple of three with a very unconventional job. The story of how this mild mannered Jewish couple - one conservatively Jewish - became the biggest distributors of gay porn in America, is worth telling on its own. Rachel Mason, the daughter of this couple, weaves in a number of other interesting threads into the mix, including obscenity and censorship in America, the history of gay pornography, the gay rights movement, her brother’s coming out, and her own experience with queer culture. The film exceeds the most when honing in on Karen and Barry, this eccentric but somehow very conventional couple who managed one of the most well-known gay porn stores in America for decades.
The funniest aspect of Circus of Books is the disconnect between Karen and Barry and their job. For them, Circus of Books is simply a way to earn money. It was originally conceived as a short-term job that would help that make ends meet, but evolved into a more significant business. One of the funniest segments of the film involves Karen going to a convention for new gay products. She manages to visit the convention while at the same time trying to avoid looking at the products on display. As we learn as the film progresses, Karen even has some strong feelings against homosexuality - she had a very negative reaction when her son came out of the closet. Her reckoning with the entry of homosexuality into her personal life is one of the more moving aspects of the film.
The film is also most successful in its exploration of gay culture in Los Angeles, particularly through interviews with the various characters who worked at and patronized the store throughout the years. There is an intimacy and warmth to Circus of Books that make the film worth seeking out.


7/10

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