‘Circus of Books’ is an Unusual Tale of a Straight Jewish Couple, Gay Porn and Unconditional Love

This article was originally published by Screen Queens.

Hidden within the hustle and bustle of West Hollywood, there lived a curious little bookstore. In 1976, Karen and Barry Mason were looking to make ends meet for their young family when they came across an ad in ‘Hustlers’. It wasn’t long after that that Circus of Books was born. This modest bookstore went on to become the largest distributor of gay pornography in the United States. Stocked with gay porn, adult sex toys, LGBTQ novels, science fiction books and Bibles, Circus of Books is a beloved and dog-eared page out of Los Angeles’ gay history.

Documentary filmmaker Rachel Mason turns the camera on her parents, guiding a familial warmth to the screen as they recount their tale with comedic rhythm. The documentary is made up of cosy home-movie footage switched between recent interviews of family members. The film explores the family’s conflicting relationship between their Jewish faith and their livelihood, with a focus on the parent’s prerogative to protect their children during a time where LGBTQ people were not accepted by wider society. They endured FBI raids, faced jail time for a federal obscenity charge, and opened their store up as a place of refuge during the AIDs epidemic. As the film steps into the 21st century, the couple reflects upon gay hook-up culture and the digital era’s detrimental impact on the bookstore. 

This image shows the inside of the bookstore, viewing a stand with an array of porn magazines. There is a sign with red writing that says 'YOU MUST BE 18 TO ENTER'
Netflix

Both Circus of Books establishments have since closed their doors, evoking a retrospective and nostalgic atmosphere throughout the film. Rachel interviews a spectrum of supporters, from former employees to porn stars and LGBT activists. RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Star, Alaska, appears with first-hand testimony as an ex-employee. The audience is introduced to adult film star Jeff Stryker during a particularly memorable interview. Stryker recalls how the Masons first branched out into hardcore film distribution while demonstrating an action figure of himself (the figurine comes with an erectable penis). Although Karen maintains that they never viewed the movies, she and her husband are, without a doubt, notable figures within pornographic history.

Karen and Barry both play down their generosity, which may speak to their internalised struggles as well as their humbleness. Rachel doesn’t airbrush her parents as saints, nor does she paint over Karen’s strained reaction to her youngest son Josh after he came out as gay. Over time, the bond between Karen and Barry with their three children strengthened. Karen went on to become an active member of PFLAG, the largest organisation for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) people, their parents and families, and allies.

However, the film did fail to raise questions about the arguably exploitative nature of gay pornography− an opinion that is often heard in relation to the straight porn industry. What the documentary may lose in objectivity, it makes up for in openness. This is a story brimming with tenderness and humour and is an unlikely tale that should be smiled upon. Rachel Mason manages to capture her family’s presence using her own lens. Circus of Books is an intimate glimpse into a unique business venture and an untold chapter of gay history.

Ad Astra: Sentimentality & Daddy Issues

Brad Pitt is Major Roy McBride, a lonesome astronaut in James Gray’s stunning space-opera. Ad Astra first premiered at the Venice Film Festival a few weeks ago and left critics shivering with existential chills.

Gray’s outer-space epic features space pirates in dune-buggies and flesh-eating monkeys but still manages to leave some audiences feeling empty and dissatisfied.

McBride is a highly accomplished, yet emotionally repressed astronaut tasked with a top-secret mission to save humanity.

Unexplained cosmic rays and electrical surges are threatening life on Earth, and it’s thought that McBride’s long-lost pioneer father is the source of these disturbances.  Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) led the promising Lima Project which travelled past the boundaries of the solar system before going off-grid.

“What did he find out there?” asks McBride.

The raw and on-the-nose commentary about the sins of fathers and humanity’s isolation within the stars can leave an all-consuming deep-pitted feeling of bleakness as you leave the cinema, leaving you to wonder whether you actually liked the film or not.

Brad Pitt is wearing an astronaut suit and he is floating in a space vessel, looking at the camera
20th Century Fox

Pitt’s performance of the compartmentalised protagonist lends a robotic approach to human emotions, yet this trait is what makes him perfect for a mission that would drive most human beings to the brink of despair.

Critics have revered Brad Pitt as of late for his recent performances including his role as Cliff Booth in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. Might we see some Academy Award nominations?

Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytemea and James Gray treat audiences with demonstrations of their mastered film-making techniques. Ad Astra is beautifully shot on 35mm and provides us with an immersive experience among the stars.

An astronaut is standing on a satellite ladder, looking down at a planet in space
20th Century Fox

Viewers will be in awe and wonder at the stillness of these breathtakingly spectacular visuals. Max Richter compliments Hoytemea’s celestial sequences with his atmospheric score, striking a melody of curiosity and mystery as we venture to find life beyond the stars.

The startling thing about Ad Astra is that it feels familiar, as we explore the commercialisation of space travel and overpriced blankets on a budget ‘spaceline’. We begin to realise that the frictions of our home planet has tainted the spectacle that is outer space.

McBride’s pessimistic monologue reveals the deterioration of this new world as well as some severe abandonment issues. His whiney narration feels like a diary entry, while hinting at a melancholic yearning for his father.

The film’s ending may leave some viewers feeling deflated, and some may even fall asleep within the first half-hour before the film picks up its pace. If you love stunning space sequences and atmospheric soundtracks, then buy a ticket while the movie is still playing in cinemas.

Ad Astra shouldn’t be entirely written off, but audiences should consider the film’s thought-provoking themes and social commentary.

I Am Mother: Post-Apocalyptic Confines

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS

I Am Mother is a 2019 Australian science fiction thriller, widely released by Netflix. Sputore’s directorial debut follows a girl living in a post-apocalyptic bunker. She is raised by an android, whose purpose it is to aid the repopulation of Earth and the restoration of humankind. Their relationship is tested when a wounded stranger arrives at the bunker.

I Am Mother opens with a title card that reads “DAYS SINCE EXTINCTION EVENT: 001”. The audience is introduced to “Mother”, an android (voiced by Rose Byrne) who is raising a human child within the confinements of the post-apocalyptic bunker. Time jumps forward to introduce a teenager simply named “Daughter” (Clara Rugaard). Mother and Daughter live together in isolation, protected from the contamination and threat that still lingers on Earth’s surface after the extinction of humanity.

‘Mother’  android
‘Mother’ in Netflix’s I Am Mother

Everything changes when an injured woman (Hilary Swank) arrives at their door, pleading for help. Along with Woman’s unexpected arrival, Daughter learns some disturbing truths about Mother. Despite the classic sci-fi ‘evil robot’ trope, this film pleasantly surprises with an unpredictable and unconventional story.

Early on, we learn that Daughter is being prepared for an exam. The film’s ending reveals that Mother had a far more insidious motive for Daughter’s testing as she attempted to raise the ‘perfect human’. Ultimately Daughter must prove that she and humanity are worthy of survival. It is later insinuated that Mother executed the extinction, to protect humankind from destroying itself. Daughter discovers that she wasn’t the first child raised by Mother, finding human bones in the incinerator. It is suggested that Woman also originated from an embryo within the bunker.

Hilary Swank’s character is up against a wall, looking scared of ‘Mother’ Android

After Daughter and Woman escape to the Earth’s surface together, Daughter quickly learns that Woman lied about living with a community of human survivors, admitting that she manipulated Daughter so that she could escape the bunker. Daughter abandons Woman, returning to the bunker to confront Mother and to raise her new brother, whose embryo she had previously chosen as Mother’s reward to her for her exam results. Daughter’s demonstration of her selfless determination to ensure the human race’s survival convinces Mother of Daughter’s capability.

Mother concedes to Daughter, as her purpose has been fulfilled. The android is no longer needed, assured that Daughter has proven herself as a capable guardian. Daughter sobs as she shoots Mother, who falls to the ground. Mother’s AI consciousness still exists in the other droids that roam the Earth’s bare surface, one of the droids visits Woman’s home and addresses her in Mother’s voice.

“Funny that you’ve survived so long. As if someone’s had a purpose for you. Until now.”

Mother had orchestrated Woman’s injury and arrival into Daughter’s life, catalysing Daughter’s curiosity and escape from the bunker. Once Daughter returned to the bunker and proved herself worthy of guiding humanity, Woman had outlived her usefulness.

Followed by an ominous slam of the door, Mother carries out her final task.

This dystopian film is tense, intelligent and suspenseful. I Am Mother is an ambitious and well-acted science fiction story with a central psychological paradox that poses intriguing questions about motherhood and humankind’s reliance on technology. Newcomer Clara Rugaard has a dynamic presence on screen, lending substance to her role as a human that questions what it means to be human.

Woman and Daughter’s faces are side by side, a still of Mother is underneath their faces. There is a black backdrop

The visual storytelling drives the film’s dystopic vision and imposes mecha-maternal sentiment as we witness the sweet moment of a head resting on a robotic shoulder. The downside of this film is that it can be easy to become lost in the plot’s details and twists, especially if you have a habit of checking your phone whilst watching movies.