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Tribeca 2019: "The Projectionist" and "Circus of Books"

Here is Jason Adams reporting again from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Sex is disappearing. Look at the Ken-like plains of our Marvel Superhero pant-fronts -- or even look how sexless our superstars made the concept of Camp look at the Met Gala this week, as if horn-dog horniness doesn't go hand in hand with that over-heated sensibility. Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls: the true end of an era. On this theme two documentaries that played Tribeca last week looked back at two nearly extinct modes of orgiastic delivery -- the porn theater and the porn shop...

First up is Abel Ferrera, never a stranger to the obscene, with his film The Projectionist, a friendly portrait of a behind-the-scenes mover-shaker named Nick Nicolaou. Nicolaou moved to New York from Greece in the 1970s and quickly found himself fist-deep in the porn theater business that dotted every sweaty square inch of Times Square. He was a natural, turning popcorn kernels into millions of bucks, taking over a string of theaters and loving every sordid second of it. 

Ferrera follows Nicolaou around the city, visiting the old wank haunts that don't much exist anymore -- so many banks where one-stop perv-stands once stood -- and reminiscing on the sweet overlap between pornography, gay and straight, and art movies, which was once more of a thing before the internet came along and shuffled the hardcore off into its own isolated sphere. Come for the bouncing volleyball girls, stay for the Ingmar Bergman. 

Unfortunately Nicolaou himself isn't that interesting a dude -- he's lived through an interesting time and seen interesting things, sure, but he's really just a good business and family man, decent and hard-working and, as far as on-screen characters go, a little bland. Ferrerra's forced to spice up his story with lots of old sex-reel footage, and by even stepping on-screen himself, injecting his own wacky personality where Nicolaou lacks the pizazz. By the last act it feels like we're watching a local sales video for a small multiplex -- come on by, the popcorn's fine enough, we guess?

Circus of Books fares much better on its human front -- Karen and Barry Mason, married middle class Jews with three kids who took over an ailing porn bookstore in West Hollywood in the 1980s and rode the smut boom, are a pair of characters. It helps that the film was directed by their daughter Rachel, who was kept at an arm's length from the family business and whose curiosity finally set to burst once she got old enough to ask. 

And so we follow alongside Rachel as she uncovers the surprisingly straitlaced story of how two smart college-educated kids with a table to put food on found themselves hawking, and eventually filming, the heady world of gay gang-bangs for profit. The sense of frisson surrounding her parents "it's just a job" mentality never stops being endearingly goofy -- Mom's inability to directly address a giant wall of dildos in her daughter's presence is one of the sight gags of the year.

But besides that comic angle the Masons also found themselves on an unexpected ferry ride through the entire gay rights movement of the last forty years, watching as their employees vanished one by one during the AIDS crisis, through their own son's coming out process, and up to the present when online sex apps and the internet turned their business model right to ash. Circus of Books cops a feel for the personal, the political, and the pornographic, all at once -- you'll need a cigarette after it's done with you.

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Reader Comments (3)

Will have to seek out the Circus of Books doc. Tragically, both locations closed: the Silver Lake location, a vital part of my early coming-out, in 2016, and the West Hollywood flagship, right across the street from equally iconic Gold Coast, back in February. It got tougher and tougher to convince people to go in, and it became more clear that many didn't know and often didn't care about what they were, what they represented. Glad to see there will be a record of it.

May 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterWalter L. Hollmann

Walter -- the doc goes right up to the closing, and you really do get a feel for a history lost. I wish I could have gone there!

May 9, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Circus of Books was picked up by Netflix!

May 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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