It’s not everyday that someone gets called a “strong female filmmaker with a point of view” by an acclaimed producer and creator like Ryan Murphy. When Rachel Mason got a shout-out by Murphy on Instagram about her film Circus of Books, she broke down in tears getting attention for the highly personal project. But Murphy’s support went beyond social media. He went on to executive produce the full-length documentary which just premiered on Netflix.
“The doc brilliantly shows how a nice straight Jewish couple (Rachel’s parents) erected a Mecca of gay porn. It’s about family, the culture’s move from analog to digital, and loss. I love it beyond, and I think you will too,” Murphy wrote in a recent social media post promoting the film. Murphy is best known for huge television hits like Glee, 911 and American Horror Story, of course, but he also signed a $300 million deal with Netflix in 2018. His first piece of original content, The Politician, debuted on the streaming platform last year. Producing Mason’s doc is his current high profile project and the two were connected by Mason’s sales agent, Josh Braun.
“Sometimes it feels like there’s gay guardian angels watching over us because I feel like I made this movie for the people that died of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s,” Mason says in a phone interview with L.A. Weekly. “I knew them as a kid and I always just had the feeling that their legacy is this huge hole in the heart of the gay community. Until very recently, out gay people were not in the type of a position where they could say, ‘I’m gay and I’m fucking celebrating it [in my] media empire’…When I met Ryan, I just [knew] this person fucking gets it so deeply…. He understood the depth and the meaning of the store and said that he appreciated my voice as a filmmaker.”
The Circus of Books film is important not just for how it highlights the LGBTQ community, but also how it depicts to the entire city of L.A. and beautifully celebrates one of our beloved landmarks. For those unfamiliar, over the last 35-plus years, Circus of Books was a book store and gay porn shop that turned into one of America’s biggest distributors of queer adult material. But it was more than just a gay porn shop and distribution center. The store -first located on Santa Monica Blvd and La Jolla Ave in the heart of West Hollywood before its second location opened in Silver Lake- gave the LA LGBTQ community a place to socialize and be themselves, especially during the AIDS epidemic. The store was cultivated by owners Karen and Barry Mason, a straight Jewish couple with three children who were unaware of their parents’ business. Circus of Books closed its doors permanently last year and the Mason’s daughter, Rachel, captured it all for her documentary. The WeHo space now houses Chi Chi LaRue’s Circus Sex shop, where toys and porn are joined by art, books and more, while the Silver Lake locale is now a cannabis store.
While Mason herself identifies as bisexual and is currently married to transexual porn star/producer Buck Angel, she didn’t want to spotlight her own story in the film. Instead, her brother Josh shares his coming out journey in the film. Although the Masons owned a gay porn store, family matriarch Karen Mason was a very Conservative Jew who at first thought being gay was an abomination. In the film, Josh explains to his sister on camera that he had planned to come out to the family on one of his visits home from college at Columbia University around 20 years ago.“I made sure I had my flight booked and paid for because it wasn’t an impossible thought that I was gonna get thrown out,” he tells his sister, who breaks down and starts crying on camera after hearing him say that. Clearly, Mason came to terms with a lot personally making the movie.
“I was ashamed of myself for not being there for him. I was like, wow, if you thought you had to get a one way ticket, why wasn’t I the first person you would’ve called? Why did you have to go through that alone? Why am I only hearing about this now 15, 20 years later,” Rachel says. “I rebelled and ran out of the house and said bye while poor Josh was there suffering in this closeted state. I was very devastated to hear those words and I felt very guilty that I wasn’t there for him at that very painful moment.”
As the film explains, the Mason patriarch, Barry, took the news much better than his wife did. “When [Josh] told us, I was just simply surprised. The only thing that I was even slightly upset about was that he kept it a secret because it would have made absolutely no difference to me,” Barry says in the film.
“Because [my dad isn’t] religious, he never felt the weight or the burden of religion and he didn’t have to look to the Bible to get his moral compass. His moral compass is just based on facts and my dad is this kind of very simple guy who is brimming with love,” Rachel says of her father. “Everybody now has been telling me that my dad is the ultimate gay dad that everyone always wants and wishes they had, and it’s really true. So you see this really strong distinction between, as my mom says, the religious parent and the non-religious parent.”
While mom Karen Mason struggled to accept her son’s sexual identity, she went on a beautiful journey that ended in love and acceptance. She emerged from her religion-inspired doubts to becoming the real life Debbie Novotny from Queer As Folk, including becoming a very active member of PFLAG with her husband. “Really [at first] she just felt like God had cursed her. You have this classic image of the lightning bolt from the heavens coming down and striking you and giving you a gay child,” Rachel explains. “So you see a person saying those words and then recognizing that’s wrong, I’m going to go back and read that Bible again because I know I can see with my own two eyes that Josh is the most wonderful person.”
Although Karen accepted Josh’s identity years ago, Rachel reveals that seeing the completed film has been eye opening for her. “My mom, as always, is the last to express appreciation for almost anything but she’s finally had to come around…and I think she’s impressed,” the filmmaker shares. “She doesn’t love being the center of attention [and] she said that now all of our friends are going to think we held a secret from them. But you know, I think she did live under the shadow of pornography. She [said],’ I never understood why you had to make this movie until I read what people are saying about it.’ All over the world, we get messages from people saying that they see themselves reflected in the film, so it’s been very poignant.”
Circus of Books is now streaming on Netflix.
Check out Rachel’s music video from the film featuring her husband Buck Angel and Peaches.