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Documentary review: “Circus of Books”

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Courtesy of Netflix
3stars
Director: Rachel Mason
Release date: April 22, 2020

Say what you will about “Circus of Books,” but you can’t argue that the film’s subjects- Karen and Barry Mason- aren’t endlessly fascinating.

In fact, they might be too fascinating. You could easily make 10 different films about the Masons, and they would each be interesting in their own ways. For example, one film could focus in on Karen, a groundbreaking newspaper journalist who once marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. Another could focus on Barry, a special effects technician on “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the original “Star Trek” TV series, who parlayed that technical knowledge into a piece of medical equipment that dramatically reimagined kidney dialysis.

You could make a screwball comedy about how the cash-strapped and very conservative Masons purchased the old Book Circus book store in west Los Angeles and transformed it into what one talking head calls “a purveyor of gourmet sexual material for every pervert in America.” Another film could use the Masons’ central position in the sexual – and particularly homosexual- universe to showcase the devastation caused by the AIDS crisis and the radical changes that rocked the pornography industry after the inception of the internet.

Filmmakers could focus on Barry as a key player in the Reagan administration’s fight against obscenity. Or they could make a devastating psychological portrait of Karen, a woman who spent the better part of three decades making a profit off of homosexuality but almost broke off contact with her own son when he came out to her.

Or if you’re first-time documentary filmmaker Rachel Mason, the daughter of Karen and Barry, you could try to do all these things and more. Like many first-time filmmakers, Mason attempts to keep a few too many balls in the air and ends up dropping a couple along the way. The film frequently whiplashes from one plot thread to another in a way that feels particularly unwieldy at times.

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Courtesy of Netflix

You could make the argument that Mason is just a little too close to this material to shape it into a more cohesive narrative. And that argument does hold up in other places- particularly in her kid-gloves approach to Karen who is still as inscrutable by film’s end as she is in the opening frames.

But honestly this film probably wouldn’t exist without Mason’s closeness to the material. Just watch how perturbed Karen gets when answering her daughter’s questions about the family business and tell me that she would have allowed an outside filmmaker to tell her story. I don’t think so.

I also don’t think an outside filmmaker would have been able to center this story with the love and empathy that Mason provides here. It would have been easy for “Circus of Books” to become a sleaze fest given all the sex, pornography and lies going around. It is much harder to ground such a story in relatable human emotions, but that’s the nifty trick that Mason manages.

Mason’s love for her interview subjects- especially her parents and her brothers- come through in every interview. Just watch her break down in tears as her brother tells her about his coming-out struggles and tell me that you think a more experienced, but less personally involved, director could have told this story better.

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Courtesy of Netflix

“Circus of Books” (Rated TV-MA for sex, nudity, language and smoking) is indeed a bit of a circus- chaotic, messy and ever-so sleazy. But the humanity and dignity that Mason provides each of her interview subjects helps it rise above some of the other middle-brow “Tiger King” sleaze you can find on Netflix these days.

It’s not essential documentary filmmaking, but it is a warm and endlessly fascinating profile. And if Mason’s filmmaking inexperience comes through in places, it’s also hard to imagine anyone telling this story with as much heart and humanity as she does.

About the author

Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves.  He can be reached at staticandscreen@gmail.com.

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