Charming and entertaining, but a little baggy, Circus of Books tells the story of the gay porn bookshop in LA run by an unlikely family.
Circus of Books (Netflix) debuted on April 22.
For the last 40 years, there has stood a specialist bookshop in L. A., one that deals primarily in gay porn and for much of time has provided a valuable place for the LGBTQ+ community to gather and flourish. This shop has been run by a couple the Mason’s, an unassuming and very mainstream couple who over the years have found themselves to be at the center of the counterculture.
There are two clear strands to Circus of Books (Netflix). One is the story of how the experience of the gay community has evolved over the last 40 years, from the ’70s to the Aids epidemic and obscenity moral panic of the ’80s, through to how the birth of the internet changed the gay (and heterosexual) hook-up culture and how print material and places like Circus of Books have changed and lost their place.
The other story being told is a personal account of this very conventional American family, who by a strange series of events came to occupy a very particular space in the local LGBTQ+ community. Told by the daughter of the family there is a sweet domestic drama to be told about a conventional American family, who despite how they make their living still have their own prejudices to deal with.
Both strands have the potential to be brilliantly interesting but sadly in trying to bring all the threads together, rather than tell one cohesive story, things get a bit muddled and neither of the elements is quite done justice to.
That being said, there is plenty to enjoy about Circus of Books. The notion of the most unassuming, mainstream people you would likely encounter running a bookshop filled with hardcore, gay porn is delightfully subversive and the fact that for much of their lives even their children had very little idea what they did is fascinating. The interviews with both the family and members of the LGBTQ+ community are revealing and paint a picture of good people who are just trying their best to make a living.
The direction from Rachel Mason, especially when interviewing family members, gets closer to the story then you would usually expect from something like this. It is this easy intimacy that marks Circus of Books out with the gentle bickering and nagging from her Mother a particular feature. However, Mason’s proximity to the material perhaps makes it difficult for her to distance herself from the subject matter which leads to the story being slightly meandering and a little unfocused at times.
At the heart of Circus of Books is a fascinating lens through which to view America’s changing relationship with the LGBTQ+ community, with the central family acting as a surrogate for ‘straight’ America. With a bit more polishing one feels as though that story could be told more strongly, nevertheless this is a charming doc with a valuable and important story to tell.