We are not lacking for profound diagnoses right now. The concept of everyday life itself is under scrutiny. And yet in times of stress and bafflement, many of us turn to family and formative experiences for signals about who we are and where the future might be taking us.
Growing up in unusual circumstances is always fodder for storytelling that might, sometimes, be as useful to an observer as it is to us. Thus we get lots of non-fiction stories about an odd but revealing upbringing and background. Right now there are two excellent documentaries about family and fortitude.
Circus of Books (new on Netflix) is specific – made by Rachel Mason, it’s about her parents Karen and Barry Mason, an apparently conventional middle-class California couple who just happened to own and operate a shop, Circus of Books, that specialized in gay porn. As Karen tells her daughter in the film, “At one point, we were probably the biggest distributor of hard-core gay films in the United States.”
The couple’s kids knew nothing about this when they were growing up. The parents told them to tell others, “Mom and dad own a bookstore.” The filmmaker, who puts herself prominently into the film, is doing two things: probing the personal life and times of her parents, and documenting the importance of the store in LA’s gay community. It’s a truly fascinating film, a slice of history and deeply personal – at times Rachel bickers with her mom, who’s a bit bossy and very curious about what kind of project her daughter is creating.
At times, too, the film – executive producer is Ryan Murphy – is a celebration of the store as a meeting place and safe space for gay men at a time when such places were few. Mainly the filmmaker is trying to figure out whether her parents understand the role they played and how they squared their business with their straight, rather orthodox home life. The thing is, that becomes less compelling than Karen and Barry themselves. They lived extraordinary lives, fell into the porn business by accident and were considered saviours by LA’s gay population.
9/11 Kids (Thursday, CBC, 8 p.m. and CBC Gem) is part of the “Hot Docs at Home” program, in which documentaries meant to screen at the Hot Docs festival are screened on CBC. Directed by Elizabeth St. Philip, whose day-job is at CTV News, it’s a look at the lives of the children, now in their mid-20s, who were in the classroom in Sarasota, Fla., listening to then-president George W. Bush read a children’s book, when someone stepped up and told him that the 9/11 terrorist attack was under way. It’s a scene seared into the minds of a generation: Bush startled and baffled, looking terribly unsure.
Like Circus of Books, it has two things going on. First, it recreates that morning through the memories of several of the “kids” who were there and their teacher. That’s the vividly heart-warming part; the recollection and anecdotes, the moment captured.
Then, however, the documentary becomes a powerful portrait of the United States in the years that followed. The portrait is anchored in the experiences of these children as they grew up poor in a place full of riches. Natalia Jones-Pinkney is now 24 years old and runs a babysitting service. “I want to own my own actual daycare,” she says. She’s cheerful until she explains what happened to her brother – a budding football star, he was shot dead by police in one of those incidents that defines the United States as much as 9/11. The mother of one of the boys in the schoolroom that day says, “I lost my son to the streets.”
There are buoyant moments, too, as some of these adults have certainty and confidence about the future, as glowing as their memories of that morning. It’s an astute look at the U.S. social landscape, using one unforgettable morning as the starting point for a journey into the battered soul of the country.
Finally, this column continues with a “stay-at-home-period daily-streaming pick.” Today’s pick is In Treatment (Crave). This HBO production from 2008 stars Gabriel Byrne as Paul, a psychotherapist who seeks therapy for himself because, under his calm demeanour, he’s a mess. A half-hour drama-comedy, it moves along with four episodes devoted to Paul seeing his patients and the fifth episode covering Paul’s session with his own shrink. A slow-burning study of self-discovery, it features several main patients: Laura (Melissa George), an anesthesiologist who confesses she’s infatuated with Paul; and Navy pilot Alex (Blair Underwood), who comes to Paul after participating in a mission gone awry in Iraq and suffering a heart attack while exercising. A series that divided critics, it’s meant to be deeply provocative.
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