Secrets & Circuses
As we enter our 78th week of quarantine, the only people who seem to be having a good time are the foodies and pop culture junkies.
My household consists of a roommate whose happy place is the kitchen, myself (who can always be found staring at some screen or other), and a dog who doesn’t complain if she gets the occasional snacks from the kitchen floor. And a lap upon which to rest her chin when I’m on episode five of whatever I’m watching.
I can’t begin to tell you how Michael made homemade English muffins this morning—only that they were delicious. But I can give you a few viewing recommendations.
Even though real life is something we’re understandably trying to avoid, I was surprised that two of my favorite viewing experiences this week were Netflix documentaries. The first was Circus of Books, a film by Rachel Mason about her parents Karen and Barry—a “nice Jewish couple,” according to the Netflix description, who for decades owned a large gay bookstore on Santa Monica Boulevard in California.
In a scant 92 minutes, the film covers an incredible amount of ground. It begins by telling a hilarious story about how a heterosexual couple accidentally fell into owning this store—which, yes, sold novels, greeting cards, and pride stickers, but mostly sold sex toys, poppers, and porn. It’s funny listening to a middle-aged heterosexual Jewish mother blithely recite ribald and profane titles of adult films with no more feeling than if she were reciting her grocery list. And the interviews, featuring the occasional celebrity (e.g., Larry Flynt, Jeff Stryker, Alaska, née Thunderf**k) add some spice.
Tangentially, the film also gives insight into how important the gay bookstore was to the LGBTQ community—and yes, I use the past tense on purpose, as the internet has wrought havoc on all bookstores, gay or straight, large or small.
Watching Circus of Books gives the audience time to ruminate on our disappearing landmarks. Moreover, the film reminds us how hard the 1980s were for LGBTQ folks, how conservative politicians and churches have always made life more difficult for us, how important our allies are, and how even our allies can find themselves hanging on to vestiges of heterosexism at the least opportune times. The experience is fascinating, heartwarming, tragic, and hilarious—much like life itself.
Decidedly sweeter, but with an even greater epic sweep, is A Secret Love, a film by Chris Bolan about his great-aunt Terry Donahue and her longtime partner, Pat Herschel. Filmed over five years, from 2013 to 2018, the story reaches back to the Great Depression, as old photographs and narration by Terry and Pat tell of their hardscrabble childhoods in Saskatchewan, how they found themselves in Chicago (Terry was a member of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, made famous by the Penny Marshall film A League of Their Own), met there, fell in love, and built a life together.
Both Canadian immigrants, they never went to lesbian bars, and instead built a close-knit group of gay friends, never telling their families or co-workers they were more than good friends. Coming out after being together for 65 years was fraught (it worked out a bit better for Terry than for Pat)—but no sooner had they triumphed over homophobia, from both within and without, than they were besieged by another, more predictable foe: getting older.
What I loved about A Secret Love was the juxtaposition of these tales of courage, true love, and grit with the more realistic, mundane squabbles that married life brings. While they’re truly and undeniably soul mates, the truth is that Terry and Pat don’t always see eye to eye—specifically, Pat wants to get married to her lover of over six decades while Terry seems hesitant. Terry also recognizes the impracticality of living on their own as their health steadily declines while Pat finds it much more difficult to sacrifice her home and her freedom.
In the end, of course, somebody wins and somebody goes along, and while I won’t tell you exactly what happens, I’ll simply state that if you don’t have to dab your eyes at some point, you have no soul.
Stay safe, everyone. Wear your masks, try a new recipe now and then, and stay indoors if you can. And if you find yourself missing out on “real life” now and then, remember—sometimes, real life can be awfully entertaining.
Eric Peterson is a writer and teacher. He co-hosts a podcast about old movies—visit rewindpod.com to learn more. Circus of Books and A Secret Love are both available to view on Netflix.