The best documentaries are about more than their ostensible subjects. Grey Gardens is not merely a vérité depiction of an eccentric mother and daughter duo; it’s a story about American royalty and what it means to be banished from it. Frederick Wiseman’s movies are never merely about the subjects stated clearly in their titles like The Store, Model, and Welfare—they’re about the times and places and people that were happening when he rolled film.
Similarly, Rachel Mason’s Circus of Books is not merely about the West Hollywood porn shop of the same name that her parents Karen and Barry Mason ran for 37 years. It’s about the sex industry (the Masons ended up becoming a huge distributor of gay porn in addition to running multiple stores), the AIDS crisis, and how porn shops, which have long existed in the shadows of American culture, provided safe spaces for their patrons, particularly gay men during a time when social acceptance of homosexuality was far less common. It’s a story about the death of small businesses (Circus of Books closed last year). It’s a story about Karen Mason’s cognitive dissonance as a religious person who ran a sex shop, and her difficulty accepting her son’s sexuality despite being ostensibly ensconced in queer culture.
Circus of Books does so much in 90 minutes that it’s a feat of filmmaking eloquence. I love love love this movie. It debuts on Netflix today (Wednesday). Earlier this week, I spoke with Rachel Mason about her film and family. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
JEZEBEL: Among your film’s many radical ideas is that a porn shop can be a safe space. It’s such a different depiction than the traditional dark/scary/seedy den of sin we’ve seen so often in pop culture.
RACHEL MASON: Absolutely, and I think I have a unique vantage point. I try not to make my own ethos so loud and clear, but clearly porn is judged in a way that is not correct. This is something that has a very wide viewership. It doesn’t cause the kind of harm that the ring wing has always said it does. Say what you will, but if you don’t like seeing sex, you don’t have to watch it.
I think many people consider their lives and families to be fascinating, but you have successfully argued that yours is, with this movie. At what point did you realize you had a documentary on your hands?
I always thought I had a documentary. It was just a question of what kind of documentary and the extent of my own family being incorporated into it. Whenever you make a documentary, I think it’s your job to find the story and let the footage tell you what’s going to be the most compelling thing. Had my brother not given me such a forthcoming interview or had my mom held back in different ways or had the story not revealed itself in the ways that it had, I might have had to switch gears. But because they were all so huge in their reactions on screen, my job was simply to craft and weave it together with my editor. A huge shoutout to my editor, Kathryn Robson.
I also had another really great producer, Cynthia Childs, who worked with me in the beginning almost as a co-director. I had to not be present in some of the moments with my mom and dad on camera because I knew they would not be so forthcoming in some of the interviews, so I would not be in front of the camera asking the questions.
Did you have a sense of all the themes that this movie would touch on from the start, or did certain topics of examination reveal themselves over time?
I knew there would be subtext, but it was hard for me to know what was going to emerge as the big story. What became the biggest surprise to me was the depth of my brother’s struggle with his teenage years, being so closeted and my mom’s horrible reaction and her turnaround. I wasn’t sure that was going to be the triumphant narrative arc that it became and I think that’s testament to the great interviews that my brother gave me, and also my mom being exactly who she is on camera. Once she gave in—and I was unrelenting—she’s just such a forceful character to follow around that it just became really organic. The story told itself.
I went in thinking I was going to tell a story of the West Coast history of gay liberation from the perspective of Circus of Books, and if this film lived and died in the annals of the One Archives and LGBTQ historical records, I would have been totally satisfied. I wanted to make sure I did something for the history books, for queer history. That was it. That was my goal and I was going to move on to my other art projects and musical endeavors. I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with documentary filmmaking and here I am: I want to tell more of these stories.
Several times in the movie, your mom complains about you filming her. I assume that by now she’s seen the product of that filming. Does she appreciate the finished product?
I think she spent so many years being so deeply self-conscious. On the surface, she understands that it’s doing something, but I think it’s just a really hard thing when you’ve absorbed this internalized predicament for so many years to suddenly shift gears and celebrate it. She feels like she’s being forced out of the closet, is what she told me. She wishes the film was about anybody except her. She’s had to be on these stages enduring standing ovations that she doesn’t understand. When we screened at Outfest and Frameline, there were tearjerking standing ovations that went on and on. People thanking her for this work. She just does not feel like she should be on the receiving end of that. But she understands that this film is doing something. I think on that level, she’s aware and appreciative of that. But she really doesn’t like the attention, I think.
To paraphrase her: A good story is somebody’s tragedy. Did you have shame about growing up with parents that were running a shop that sold porn?
I was very cagey about what I included about myself in the film. As a filmmaker, I’m trying to focus on the story and I wanted to be in it as much as was absolutely necessary. In the movie, my brother says, “Rachel, your world was too gay,” and then we cut to my friends and see that I was clearly in a world with the artist kids who totally didn’t give a fuck. I’ve only ever felt really proud of the store because I am in the counterculture and I love the counterculture. That’s part of why I always rebelled against my parents. My mom sent me to Sunday school and I hated it and resisted it and I thought all these things that made my mom the most uncool person ever, and so weirdly when I had to recognize that they were doing this thing that was so out there and cool, my friends loved it.
I’m a gay porn heiress and it’s so great. I’m into it. My hero is John Waters. My lover is Buck Angel. I’m in this world. I love the world of porn. I was friends with the old book-buyers. I was part of the culture, and that’s what made me the person in my family who appreciated the store when nobody else really did. But looking at my brother Josh, when he said, “Rachel you were too gay,” I had this recognition that he was a closeted gay man when I was waving my freak flag running around with all of the weirdos and being super open about everything and sexually liberated, here my little brother was struggling with being closeted. I was crying in that scene because I recognized that I was ashamed of my teenage self because I was so gay and so free and that I didn’t even have the time for him to witness his struggle. I think that’s a big piece of the gay movement: People who want to live their normal life and maybe marry another man, and they don’t want to be out there in drag doing anything that is wild and crazy. That is a legitimate part of the population, maybe even the majority. The campy weirdos are out there, just probably louder than most.
Your lover is Buck Angel?
Yeah, he’s my partner. In a way, I’m private about my personal life, but yeah. The end credits song in the film is a song I wrote and I’m releasing it this week as well, and Buck’s in it. I look at Buck’s work as activism. His porn is activism. All gay porn I see as a form of activism. Obviously what Buck did was so ahead of its time for the trans movement, to say the least. I see this very weird internet moment—the kind of vitriol that comes at Buck and other elders in the LGBT movement sometimes from within the LGBT community is unbelievable. The gay stories that are still being told are not known to the younger generation. It didn’t just all suddenly happen that you are able to get testosterone and marry other people of the same gender. It took an incredible struggle, and it’s still going on. Those rights are very delicate. I hope we find a way to become unified.
Given the content, was it difficult to make this? Did you encounter any of the roadblocks many docs face?
I think there’s an amazing luck factor. Maybe the gay angels were hovering above this film wanting it to get done. The hard part was making the movie, the four years that went into it, the times I had no money and nobody was willing to come in. But then my executive producer Josh Braun brought the film to Ryan Murphy. The fact that Ryan exists at all is a miracle for this movement of trying to get more queer stories into the mainstream. He came in, and it was like this had to be a Ryan Murphy film. When I met Ryan, he was like, “That store was important to me in my development as a young man in L.A.” I was like, “Oh wow. That’s so cool.” If this store could help you do your work and here you are making Pose, shit. What an amazing thing that is. Ryan gave me his total blessing and said this film was awesome and had ideas for a series right away. In my wildest dreams, I hadn’t pictured this going beyond the Outfests of the world. It was just unbelievable.
Circus of Books is now streaming on Netflix.