Writer Kathryn Robson on the Sex Shop, Circus of Books, and the Titillating Documentary It Inspired | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Writer Kathryn Robson on the Sex Shop, Circus of Books, and the Titillating Documentary It Inspired

Sex Is Natural

Oct 07, 2020 Web Exclusive
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Surfing through the glorious abundance of Netflix the other day, I chanced upon a fabulous movie about something unexpectedly entertaining: a bookstore. Thankfully, I clicked on the movie and watched it end-to-end in one sitting. That movie? Circus of Books.

The documentary, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 26, 2019, tracks the life and times of the bookstore, which was the biggest distributor of gay and lesbian pornography anywhere in the United States. The shop, run by a cute little straight couple, helped change the world and offered a place for queer folks in Los Angeles to congregate, communicate, and grow (as well as indulge in some lustful behavior behind the shop).

We caught up with Kathryn Robson, who co-wrote the film (it was directed by Rachel Mason, daughter of the shop’s owners). Robson, who helped craft and edit the movie’s narrative, talked about how she got involved in the documentary, what she appreciates about both sex and pornography, and what, above all else, she loves about telling stories.

Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): What do you love most about stories?

Kathryn Robson: I think of story as a kind of universal language. Humans have always been storytelling creatures, that’s true across cultures, languages, and time. It’s fundamentally how we communicate, how we understand ourselves in the world. It’s super nerdy, but I think a lot about the three-act structure and how this relates to the way we understand a lifespan: youth, middle age, old age and beginning, middle, end. There’s something inherent in the human brain that wants to organize events this way. Story differs from real life in that real life is messy and the way we experience it is often unresolved. But in story, there’s resolution. It’s an act of making meaning of an experience that’s hard to understand when you’re living it, but the meaning is always imbued. So I think of my work as uncovering that meaning and synthesizing it, so that, hopefully, audiences walk away with a new perspective and understanding. It’s catharsis.

What interests you about sex or pornography?

Sex is one of the most natural, enjoyable things we get to experience, but there’s all this cultural shame around it so it’s fascinating to me to explore those contradictions. Pornography is a space where all those contradictions are revealed. My MA thesis was a documentary called Female POV: The Hetero Female Use of Online Porn, and I got to explore the history of pornography and how the definitions of what’s considered “obscene” have changed throughout history. In my research, I did a deep dive into Queer Theory and learned about how historically porn was so much more than just a source of entertainment for the LGBTQ community; it was a space for identity and community-making, sometimes the only space where gay people could see themselves reflected back and feel they weren’t alone. It was so important to Rachel and I to get that message through in the film because a lot of people in the straight community don’t understand that.

Was it ever hard to admit academically or publicly that you had an interest in sex?

Academically, it took me a while to understand this was a credible area of research; “porn studies” is an actual academic field and there are entire academic journals dedicated to it. But in terms of acknowledging publicly an interest in sex—no, that was never difficult. I’m a human being, we’re all fascinated by sex in some form or another! I think the LGBTQ community has had to confront this out of the necessity of living in a heteronormative world and the straight community has been way behind in a lot of ways. Working on Circus of Books, it was exciting to be able to open up that conversation in a way that was honest and tried to reduce the shame around it.

How did you meet Rachel Mason and when did you know that you wanted to be a part of the Circus of Books documentary?

Rachel and I were introduced by a mutual friend, producer Vanessa Meyer, when I mentioned to her that I did my MA thesis on a porn-related topic (The Hetero Female Use of Online Porn) and she said, “I know a director working on a documentary about her parents’ gay porn shop and she’s looking for an editor—you guys have to meet!”

Rachel and I met and she told me the whole story of her family: that her parents had been the biggest distributors of gay porn in the United States and had faced federal charges, but that she and her brothers had been kept in the dark about what they did. They’d grown up very religious and her brother had himself struggled to come out. It was such a rich, layered story and there was so much contradiction and complexity to it. Those are the stories I’m really attracted to so I knew I wanted to be a part of bringing it into the world. It felt like a big risk quitting my job to come on as the editor and producer, but we landed in a really well-supported place—first with Josh Braun at Submarine coming on as our sales agent, Ryan Murphy coming on to Executive Produce and Lisa Nishimura and the whole Netflix team. They all showed the film so much love. So that felt like a real confirmation that it was the right choice.

Fiction has to be written, but, in many ways, non-fiction is already there, so the speak. As a writer, therefore, what is your role on a documentary film?

Documentaries are written in the edit bay. It’s not like a fiction film where you have a script to work from, you’re literally finding the story in the footage. Life doesn’t unfold in easy, accessible segments, so the work is really distilling real life down to its most salient parts and constructing the through-line that gets to the essence of what you’re trying to say.

With Circus of Books, there were really three stories we were telling: the story of the stores themselves and the community around them, the personal story of the Mason family, and the broader socio-cultural story about what was happening for the gay community during this period. The key was weaving those three stories together; knowing when to pan out to the universal and when to draw into the personal and doing it in a way that felt seamless and maintained some tension and discovery. With Josh Mason’s story, for example, we didn’t want him coming out to feel like a “twist” necessarily; we wanted the audience to be able to experience it the way he did. It’s not like there was suddenly one moment where he said to himself “I’m gay” and everything changed for him. It was a process that occurred over time, as it is for so many people in the LGBTQ community, so we wanted to honor and acknowledge that. We definitely tried to adhere to the events as they unfolded with as much authenticity as possible, but we’re also packing 40 years of history into 90 minutes. There was so much more story we couldn’t even fit! There’s a lot of technical work that goes into that—storyboards, plotting out the rising and falling actions, and shifting the pieces around. On the one hand, it’s sort of like putting together a 5000-piece jigsaw puzzle without a picture to look at, but on the other, it feels a little like sculpting—like the story is in there and my job is to chisel away until it fully reveals itself. And you know it when you get to it.

What did you love most about the Circus of Books stores and the story behind them?

What I loved most about the stores themselves is how authentic and unpolished they were as physical spaces. I feel like we’re in this time where there’s a fixation on branding, design, and presentation, but Karen and Barry’s approach was really about function over form. And I think that’s part of what made the stores feel so approachable and comfortable for so many people. They were tremendously unpretentious, and the doors were open to anyone. It harkens back to a time when community spaces were not about aesthetic, they were about serving the people who inhabited them. We really tried to bring that ramshackle, eclectic visual language that was reflective of the store to the film.

In terms of the story behind the stores, there’s so much to love. I love the history of this physical space where people came together and could be fully themselves. Alexei Romanoff, the activist we interview who’s in his 80s, explains how even before it became Circus of Books, this was a place of refuge for the LGBTQ community during the Black Cat Uprising in 1967. Karen and Barry describe themselves as stewards of the store, and I do think of them as protectors of this sacred space. I know Rachel feels the same. That concept of communal physical spaces was really important to us. I thought a lot about how Karen had a sense of refuge in her synagogue—that was her sacred space. And even though she drew this line between her personal and professional life for so long, she really was providing the same kind of sanctuary for the gay community in her work. There was a cognitive dissonance there, but it’s the truth of what she was doing.

Going through this pandemic, being physically separated from our community and the people we love, I think it’s really underscored for everyone how important being together in a physical space is. We talk about it in the film. There’s a lot that’s been gained from the move to a digital world. Yes, we can connect across distance, and thank god for that. But there’s something about congregating in person that can’t be replicated, and I think Circus of Books really speaks to that in this moment.

Do you have a favorite moment, scene or character from the documentary?

I mean, Alaska Thunderfuck stole every scene she was in—that was such a fun interview to work with. But the Masons are the heart of this film. With social media, a lot of people have become more trained for the camera and there’s sometimes an artifice you can feel in the footage, but there was none of that with Karen and Barry. I can attest that what you see in the film is exactly who they are in real life, and there’s something so charming about that to me. Barry is such a happy-go-lucky guy to the extent that it was difficult to get him to talk about some of the more serious stuff without smiling. We were interviewing him about the FBI raids on the store and how he was facing some pretty significant jail time, and he’s just smiling because he knew it all worked out okay, but we had to explain that we didn’t want the audience to know that yet. It was really quite funny.

Karen was the most fascinating to me, she’s the one on the hero’s journey in the story. I loved being able to present her as fully human, with flaws and complexities and incongruities—because that’s how people are! She was the biggest distributor of gay porn in the United States and she had all these LGBTQ employees and customers she really went to bat for, but she still had this internalized homophobia she wrestled with. There’s a cognitive dissonance that collides in the film and she goes through this transformation based on her love for her son and becomes a leader in PFLAG. I mean, she’s just an incredible woman and mother—indomitable. She has this amazing line where she says, “I’ve spent the last 20 years helping other people understand and accept the gender variations in their children, and there are a lot of gender variations. And they’re all okay. And I hope you put that in this movie.” It was such a powerful statement and it says so much about her journey. We make it pretty clear in the movie that Karen wasn’t really interested in starring in a documentary, but she did it because she loves her daughter and because sharing this message is so important to her. That even if you’re a very religious person, it is possible to do the work and find the resolution in yourself to love, accept, celebrate, and advocate for your LGBTQ child, and by extension every LGBTQ+ person.

One of my favorite scenes is toward the end of the film when Karen and Barry are in the PFLAG march at the Pride Parade. And she’s still Karen, she’s still kind of buzzing around doing a million things and giving Rachel a hard time. But the last shot in the scene is her looking around at the crowd with this huge smile on her face. And you can see she’s in awe of the moment, of the community, and the crowd of supporters. It’s just this beautiful moment of love, resolution, and gratitude. I’ve watched it hundreds of times and it still makes me cry every time I watch.

What did you discover about the psychology of individuals or the collective in regard to the public versus private dualism of sex and sexual expression when seen through the lens of the bookstores?

I would say it was an exploration of the psychology of the public versus private dualism of sex, more so than a discovery. I wanted the audience to be asking themselves questions about their own comforts and discomforts around sexuality, gender, and pornography. We are sexual creatures, there’s just no denying that; it’s a totally natural part of who we are. The more openly we can acknowledge that, the more we dismantle the shame that is culturally put upon us. I think Circus of Books was a shame-free space in so many ways—the store itself, the staff who ran it, the cultural products they sold. These were all sites for shame-free sexual expression. In the movie, we’re capturing a period when there was a lot of effort to maintain that cultural shame against sexuality, especially within the conservative movement and straight communities. And it’s not as if that’s over. Yes, there’s been a lot of important inroads, but there’s a long way to go. Rachel and I hoped this movie would resonate with the LGBTQ community, but we didn’t want to just preach to the choir. The family story allowed us to reach out to straight people as well as conservative people, religious people—people who haven’t had to do the same work around dismantling sexual shame, resolving, and even celebrating their sexuality—that the LGBTQ+ community is still forced to do in a heteronormative-cisnormative world. I really do believe that a rising tide lifts all boats and the more we dismantle homophobia and transphobia, the more everyone is released from the shackles of sexual and gendered shame. I think that’s the lens on the world the Circus of Books stores provided, and hopefully, that’s what we captured in the film.

What has been the response from viewers—any angry threats, you received an Emmy nomination?

Honestly, the response has been almost exclusively positive. Rachel and I were prepared for some backlash because pornography in general is a polarizing topic. I mean, second-wave feminists formed a huge part of the anti-porn movement in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t just conservatives. But the film is ultimately a family story; a story about love and community and allyship. I think that’s what comes through for audiences and why the response has been so positive. We’ve heard from so many people who resonated with Josh’s story or were inspired by Karen’s transformation. I think having Ryan Murphy’s support on the film also helped a lot because people know the kind of thoughtful storyteller he is and that gave us a certain amount of trust from audiences.

What do you love most about your job—particularly, perhaps, the subversive elements of it?

My favorite stories to tell are the subversive ones, stories that challenge what we think we know about a topic and flip it on its head. For Circus of Books, that was built into the story in a sense because right off the hop, Karen and Barry are not who you expect to be running a gay porn store. But we knew that was a bit of a gag and it wasn’t enough to hang an entire film on. So we started from a place of what audiences expect—yes, porn is titillating and it’s funny to see this couple list off funny porn titles and shop for lube and dildos. But the next step was getting the audience to understand porn wasn’t just a source of entertainment for the gay community, and the store wasn’t some embarrassing place to sneak in and out of. As I said, these are important cultural sites for identification and belonging. We really worked to have the whole film unfold that way; every time you think you’ve wrapped your head around it, there’s another subversion. Karen is a boss and has this encyclopedic knowledge of the porn industry, but she’s also a deeply religious woman. By all outward appearances, Josh was this straight-laced, high-achieving kid who was doing really well, but actually he was struggling with this pain of not feeling able to be his full self in a family where you might expect it would be easy to come out- and how true that is for so many young LGBTQ+ people. My goal is really to push the boundaries of what people take for granted to be “true.” Because if you can walk away from a documentary with a new perspective on something, hopefully, you can bring that awareness and open-mindedness to everything—that your personal experience doesn’t represent an absolute truth. That there are lived experiences and perspectives that are different from yours, and you can keep your mind open to that and always be challenging and expanding your own understanding of the world. For me, that’s work that feels like a meaningful contribution.

Read our review of Circus of Books.


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November 24th 2020

Nice article! Thank you!