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“Some of the Old LA Sleaze”: Rachel Mason on Circus of Books

Circus of Books

Long an enclave for individuals to frequent and explore without fear of condescending judgment, brick-and-mortar porn shops have been going the way of the dodo bird. Why browse in person when you can search through endless adult content online free of charge? Who wants to sheepishly walk toward the back of a store, slipping through the creaky saloon doors to peruse graphic DVD covers that promise over eight hours of explicit content when you can just as easily scroll through an infinite archive on your phone? Feel awkward purchasing toys, lubricants, edibles, and reading material over the counter in person? Thanks to the internet of things, human-to-human interaction can be but a distant memory!

Whether the internet killed the gay porn industry or helped to further proliferate its distribution is but one topic discussed in Circus of Books, director Rachel Mason’s new documentary that premieres on Netflix this week. Titled after the popular gay bookshops in West Hollywood and Silver Lake owned by her conservative parents for decades, Mason’s documentary is steeped in American (LGBTQ consumerism and activism) and familal history (mom and dad ran these mom-and-pop shops like any retail operation, except theirs just happened to sell adult content). 

Less quirky or twee than you might expect, Circus of Books is the story of a tightknit Jewish family who, by serving an underserved market, backed into a fight against the conservative powers-that-be (President Reagan and Attorney General Ed Meese’s war on the First Amendment), while adjusting their personal beliefs for the betterment of progressivism and acceptance. Anyone who’s ever worked with adult video–discounted buy-one-get-one-free and previously-viewed promotions remain all the rage–will get caught up in the clunky nostalgia of what is now considered something of a halcyon era. 

A few days before Circus of Books was set to premiere on Netflix (where it’s now streaming), I spoke with Mason about her family’s lurid past, the history of gay rights and activism in California, meeting with Hustler’s Larry Flynt, and why every family has an interesting story waiting to be discovered if you just dig deep enough. 

Filmmaker: This isn’t your first foray into documentary filmmaking, right?

Mason: Circus of Books is technically my first documentary. That being said, my first film was considered a documentary to some because it was based on real individuals and a lot of personal research (it was also partly a musical). It’s called The Lives of Hamilton Fish and it focuses on a very obscure subject: two men named Hamilton Fish (the Republican member of the United States House of Representatives and the notorious serial killer) who both died on the same day in January of 1936. It was a rare coincidence that I happened to discover. I performed live alongside several screenings and, as a result, it was compared to the work of Sam Green, a filmmaker who also does “live-performance documentaries.” But it wasn’t a traditional documentary by any stretch. My background is as a visual artist, musician and songwriter. Up until I made Circus of Books, my films existed exclusively in the art world, in an arthouse context and were considered more obscure performance art pieces.

Filmmaker: What was the impetus then for Circus of Books? Were you getting the sense that your parents were going to have to shut down their stores and you wanted to document it?

Mason: It mostly was, yes. I didn’t set out to make a film as personal as it ultimately became. I always knew of the stores’ importance to the local gay community, but in choosing to take on this project, I began to unearth my family’s deeper connection to their place of employment. How they went about raising a family (and how they kept secrets) became a natural storyarc that would bind everything together.

Filmmaker: Having your parents operate a gay book store is probably not as scandalous as it sounds; at one point in the film you skim numerous titles of adult DVDs while your mom remarks that those films probably put you through college! What was your relationship like with your parents’ profession? Was it just something that mom and dad did for a living?

Mason: Yeah, it was like any other mundane job that people have to worry about (my grandparents owned a hardware store, for example). It’s funny because people think of the adult industry in such glamorous, outrageous terms, but the people that work behind the scenes are sitting at desks and filing paperwork, sending out invoices, doing their government tax forms, all that boring stuff. My parents were involved in each of the boring aspects of the job. Occasionally there might be a book signing at the store or some other kind of event, but even then my parents had very limited involvement. However, what’s cool is that they knew each of the players in the industry (producers, directors, porn stars) as they had to be invested in the business side of each of these folks’ work. But their work was by-and-large boring, especially to me.

Filmmaker: The store itself doesn’t scream cinematic; it’s filled with lots of loose discs, toys, books, magazines, postcards, and the like. There’s a haphazard quality to its structure that makes it really feel like to maintain it would very much be “a job.”

Mason: It was a mess! My parents were never good at organizing. The back area of the store looked like a disaster, always a total mess, and they painted the store maybe once in their thirty years of ownership (if even that).

Filmmaker: But in its own way, memories of the store represent a form of nostalgia, a longing for the brick-and-mortar environment that we don’t have much of anymore. Seeing those saloon doors that lead to the X-rated films and those big-box, clunky VHS tapes are ephemera that have gone by the wayside. Your film feels like a tribute to (and a capsule of) a certain time period that’s quickly evaporating as we move more and more online.

Mason: Oh definitely, and I have a little nostalgia for that kind of store as well (the kinds you don’t see much of anymore in Los Angeles). It possessed some of the old LA sleaze that played such an important role in establishing character. I would say there’s maybe one store, like a trashy lingerie spot here in LA, that’s still around and has retained a bit of that character. It’s the kind of mom-and-pop store that you always knew was a small business and that didn’t care about looking pretty. It had a 1960s or ’70s looseness to it, a looser experience of retail than the highly orchestrated setup we get nowadays, where everything is so planned out and people are so deliberate and there are designers running around. These older stores had a more “underground comics” feel to them, like a head shop, you know?

Filmmaker: Absolutely, and I can only imagine the arduous process of conducting monthly inventory of the entire store.

Mason: Exactly.

Filmmaker: Were you always thinking “big picture” when it came to placing the Circus of Books in a historical context? Was it by interviewing your parents that you began to map out a timeline of gay activism throughout American history? 

Mason: I’ve been interested in LGBT history for a long time (at least since I became aware of my parents’ store) and porn’s role as a piece of the gay historical record. It’s a vastly different thing when you think about straight porn versus gay porn. Gay porn is a record of a culture that didn’t get to be “above ground.” It’s a record of a culture that was criminalized. When you look at really old, vintage gay porn, you’re observing numerous markers of cultural history (language and signs and symbols and coded ways of speaking) that make up the essence of gay history. I do tend to focus on gay men and that’s a really important part of my film. Circus of Books was there for gay men who often ended up being the victims of the AIDS epidemic and were shunned and ostracized as a result. It was a really painful time. 

When I talk to older generations of gay men (and by older, I mean men over the age of fifty), they have a relationship or experience with porn that’s more like a lifeline. We’re not talking about porn in salacious terms that people tend to use when discussing straight porn (straight porn being a reflection of the power dynamics between men and women that reinforces mainstream coding). Gay porn offered a simple recognition of a completely taboo fantasy that was publicly considered in line with pedophilia or incest. That’s how degraded homosexuality was at the time! It was important for men, who felt so deeply shamed by society, to see something visual that reinforced their own, personal feelings. The men I spoke with would be in tears when they talked about the role gay porn had for them. It’s not a small thing, and I regard the filmmakers who made gay material as activists, I really do.

Filmmaker: Did the 1966 police raids at The Black Cat jump out to you as a proper starting-off point for this history? Having gay activist Alexei Romanoff in the film to recount that night feels pretty crucial to your film’s throughline.

Mason: It was and I’m very grateful and lucky that Alexei is still with us, because to be honest, most of these men aren’t with us anymore. Alexei had owned a gay bar very close to The Black Cat at the time of the 1966 police raid, called New Faces [two men were actually chased by police from The Black Cat into New Faces that night], and as a result, his bar also plays a pivotal role in the demonstrations that followed. The fact that Alexei survived an epidemic that should’ve wiped him out along with everyone else is incredible. The “original activists” are sadly so few now and I consider each of them to be heroes. 

Bringing The Black Cat’s history into my film was crucial, as West Coast/Los Angeles gay history is very much new to the dialogue of gay rights as a whole. It’s not as known to the world as The Stonewall Inn is, for example, and by acknowledging that, I don’t wish to take anything away from Stonewall’s history. On the contrary, everyone I know (myself included) is indebted to the riots at Stonewall. That being said, it’s important to remember that there was a national movement and a West Coast demonstration that preceded it. Next to New York, Los Angeles has the biggest gay population in the country and it’s a very mixed population with people of all ethnicities. We have a very powerful Hispanic community and black and Asian-American community and I think the Silver Lake area is a significant melting pot for them. I wanted to get across that we here in Los Angeles have a different but very important role in the gay rights movement as well.

Filmmaker: Were it not for your mother’s previous career as a journalist (and the subsequent photos and clippings she privately held onto over the years), a piece of this story might be missing. It’s almost like viewing family knickknacks helped provide your film with a treasure trove of potential archival material. 

Mason: It’s funny. My mom always had this trunk in the basement that she never wanted me to go through. When I finally did, in a strange way, I understood why she was so hesitant. The items in that trunk represented her youth and I came across pictures of her going on airplane rides and wearing these small dresses and all that stuff, and it was like, “Oh my God, what were you doing, mom?” It was fascinating to see because she ended up being so much more of a conservative “soccer mom” when she eventually had children, and she’d tell me to go to Sunday School and do all of these things that were very restrictive. And now here I was as an adult, discovering my mom as a kind of youthful rebel. 

I think parents often want to keep that history from their kids because otherwise you’re going to think, “well, they can’t have much authority over me because they themselves were doing wild things in their youth.” Suffice to say, my mom didn’t want me digging through her past. When I ultimately dug it up, I found that Larry Flynt not only knew her but had offered her a job after she wrote an article on him. When I interviewed him for my film, he had so much respect for my parents. 

Filmmaker: Did that come as a shock?

Mason: Well, I knew that they knew him but I didn’t know he knew them, if that makes sense.

Filmmaker: Is that how you were able to contact him for an interview? I imagine he felt somewhat indebted to your parents for his earlier success.

Mason: Larry doesn’t like to do interviews, but nonetheless, my dad gave me a phone number to reach out to. He said, “call Minda Gowen [Flynt’s PR manager]” and that’s how I got in touch. Minda told me that Larry doesn’t really do interviews but that he wanted to do this one with me because he had admired my parents for such a long time. My parents took a chance helping to distribute Hustler magazine many decades ago when no one else would. I had naively assumed that there were tons of people distributing Hustler back then, but apparently that wasn’t true. There were my parents and a few other people, but I think my parents were his most successful distributor. The fact that they were the first people to distribute his magazine is something I didn’t know and they sure as heck didn’t tell me. I don’t know if they kept it from me or if they were just so busy with their business they didn’t think anything of it. That’s a big part of it, that my parents are small business owners who never stop to look around and observe that “Wow, what we’re doing is actually pretty cool.” They’re just focused on the next bill they have to pay. That’s why this documentary is partly about tracking my parents down and saying, “Just stop for one second so I can ask you a few questions about this history.” If I hadn’t, they would’ve just gone about their business, closed down the store, and moved on.

Filmmaker: Your parents have a fascinating backstory. Your father even worked for Stanley Kubrick in the effects department on 2001: A Space Odyssey! And on Star Trek, the television series! Had you spoken with your folks about these things before? When the child becomes the interviewer, is there a learning and new understanding of the parents that comes out as a result? 

Mason: I think a lot of people have really interesting parents and could make amazing movies about them. Trust me, it’s not just my parents! It’s true that making a movie gives you access that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Yeah, my parents happen to have this one angle but a lot of people’s parents were doing incredible things that if you were to stop and ask about the risks they had taken, you would be fascinated. While I was editing my film, somebody in the editing room remarked, “Wow, your parents are so interesting,” and I asked, “Well, what do your parents do?” “My dad was a drug smuggler for the cartel for a while.” That itself is pretty interesting! 

If you probe deep enough, every family has a fascinating character or two. Dig in and ask the right questions. My dad’s history with filmmaking was always interesting to me because he knew I was interested in filmmaking and wanted to go into that field, and so he taught me a lot about technique. In fact, early on in the documentary, you’ll notice that when I’m looking at him in my camera as a kid, he says “It’s not in focus, Rachel.” My dad was always telling me how to make my shot better. He actually was a cameraman and developed his special effects skills, in a roundabout way, due to his father experiencing kidney failure late in life. My parents were hoping to get into the dialysis business and I think my mom felt it would be a really upstanding thing to do and appreciated my dad’s abilities. That obviously didn’t happen.

My dad never had a problem with adult material. He was just a guy who needed a problem to solve and then he would go and solve it. I don’t think he had the same level of judgment that my mom did.

Filmmaker: You also interview your brothers in the film, and there’s a personal story involving your mother’s acceptance as being the parent of a gay child that becomes significant by the film’s conclusion; it’s a natural progression in your family’s history and in the progressiveness of our country. Did you envision those two strands merging like that?

Mason: That’s an interesting point that I hadn’t thought of. I think my parents were actually behind the curve when it came to being progressive, as weird as that sounds. They weren’t out there marching with Act Up and they were not early members of PFLAG. They joined out of necessity because my mom couldn’t reconcile her religious faith and they were late to the cause. However, they’re now incredibly huge to the cause and I think that’s part of the other piece of it. They were conservative, square people. My mom and my dad were kind of oblivious to anything cultural going on at the time. That’s why it’s funny that my dad happened to know Jim Morrison, given that he had no idea Morrison was even in a band. My dad was shooting his movies in college and later came across an album cover and was like, “Wow, I know that guy. That guy is Jim Morrison!” My dad’s very much a nerd and my mom was focused on raising a family. They were not gay rights activists by any stretch.

Filmmaker: Ryan Murphy is an executive producer on the film. Of course, he’s a big ally for bringing the history of gay life into the mainstream. How did he get involved?

Mason: His involvement came as a result of my sales agent, Josh Baun. Josh brought the project to Ryan and Josh was also instrumental in getting us the Netflix deal. Josh is also an executive producer on the film and knew that Ryan would appreciate the story. When I met Ryan, he said pretty much what other people who are from his generation had said, that the store was really important to him when he came to LA as a gay man and that he was glad we were tying the history of gay life to the Circus of Books. He was shocked to discover that the store could be traced back to a straight family with a religious mother! For him, it connected the dots in a way that aligned with what he attempts to do in his advocacy for gay causes. When you have someone at that level of success who happens to be gay and out and doing all of this work for gay people, it becomes a special experience. Regardless of what he’s doing for my film, I’m grateful that he’s doing any of his advocacy, as there aren’t many people on that level, Hollywood or elsewhere, who are making it known that gay rights are very important in discussing gay history. It remains an important point of focus.

Filmmaker: The film had a healthy festival run that kicked off last year with the Tribeca Film Festival and now it’s premiering on a platform that will make it accessible to millions upon millions of home viewers. Is the experience of having a festival run versus premiering on such a large streaming platform like Netflix, where the potential audience is greater and the film further magnified, vastly different? 

Mason: It’s really weird! I’ve never had a film released on Netflix before and I don’t know what this experience is going to be like (I’m learning as I go). I’m extremely grateful that the universe conspired to put all these things in motion, but at the same time, it feels like a sad irony and a twisted bit of faith that we’re currently experiencing an epidemic on the scale of one, I feel, exactly like what the gay community went through in the 1980s and 90s. The community that my film is about experienced a horrible epidemic and the response wasn’t handled properly and no one in the government gave a damn. 

Imagine the severity of an epidemic like the one we have now but where you don’t receive any support and you don’t have any political leaders saying, “OK, we’re going to do everything we can to help you.” The gay community was reeling from this epidemic and it was an extremely confusing time. While no one knew how it was being transmitted, they still dealt with the shame of being outcast from society. When I go back and read articles from that era, I’m shocked at just how blatantly homophobic the mainstream press was. AIDS was the double whammy, an epidemic that happened to a population that was already being extremely degraded. To a certain degree, we’re now experiencing something similar. 

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