Growing up in the suburbs and visiting Toronto, part of the “Toronto” experience meant seeing black and white, 81/2x 11″ posters on hording and lampposts all over town advertising the Sex & Violence Cartoon Festival, Siddhartha or the Salvador Dali Film Festival. While I’m sure some people’s experiences also included following those posters to the Cineforum to watch The Wizard of Oz/Darkside of the Moon or Nosferatu/Kid A, for me it meant knowing that this alternative film series would always be a part of what makes the city, and the people in it, unique from the suburbs.
I told this to Reg Hartt, the proprietor of Cineforum, when I went to his house for the first time in December 2008 after he announced that his home at Bathurst and College, right across from the Beer Store, was being sold. He told me I took it for granted. And I did.
Hartt has been showing films in one way or another for over 40 years. Cineforum started in the back of a store on Queen Street called Viking Books. He also showed programs around town at various places before moving it to a place near Yorkville, the one time home of hippies in Toronto before becoming the current yuppie centre of the city. He called it the “Public Enemy” back then in tribute to Henry Miller’s letter to surrealists where he states that whenever an artist of value arises he’s seen as public enemy number one. Hartt took the screenings on the road to places like Ottawa and LA and was also the film resource person at Rochdale College, the experimental student-run alternative education centre in Toronto which started in 1968.
Part of the impetus behind starting Cineforum for Hartt was his realization that people spend the majority of their time at work, and most people hate their jobs. He didn’t want to spend his life hating the thing that consumed his time.
In Hartt’s post on the Cineforum site entitled “Last Christmas” he writes: “The waters will settle. The new people who take over will receive strange visitors in the middle of the night who once upon a time knew they were welcome here at any hour.” I can no longer take for granted that it, and the posters that are both a part of the city’s landscape and evidence of the Cineforum’s existence, will always be there. At this point Hartt himself doesn’t even know what’s going to happen.
“One of the things the I Ching teaches is if you trust yourself the harmonic flows of the universe pass through you and you live what in other terms is called a magical life. So I’m not really alarmed by what’s happening here I’m just waiting to see where it’s taking us next,” he says. “If you don’t prepare for the worst you’re not doing your job.” In preparation for the possible move Hartt is selling his 16mm collection, which he has switched over to digital.
“I wanted to do all the conventional things when I was younger because that’s what I thought I wanted to do,” says Hartt when asked about his beginnings in film. “In 1968, by chance at a party I stumbled across the Wilhelm/Baynes edition of the I Ching and I bought my first copy the next day and began to study it.” He then began to live the life it teaches, which, he says, essentially turned him into a crazy person in other people’s eyes.
“Anybody who actively engages in living the life the great teachers have lived is always looked at as a crazy person,” he says.
As someone who lived on the periphery of the Cineforum, looking at it through its legend rather than actually attending, I had heard many stories of Hartt before finally visiting his home. I have never heard him described as crazy, however the first thing I remember hearing about him was that he talks a lot. I heard about an instance in the late ’80s where Hartt was talking before a film and someone in the audience yelled, “Shut up and play the movie.” Apparently Hartt simply said, “No, I’m not going to shut up,” and kept talking. I imagine this is something he’s heard before, and most likely since.
Hartt posted a comment on his website that came from a Cineforum thread on a film group message board where a Hartt detractor said “oh god. i can’t stand reg hartt and his film presentations. pom-pour, overbearing, loud, pretentious and his films are often laced with completely distracting self-mixed sound tracks. meh.” While people are divisive in their feelings about Hartt himself, he’s really the attraction of Cineforum screenings, more so than the filmic offerings. Jane Jacobs once told Hartt that the best part of what he does is what he has to say.
Talking to Hartt in his kitchen about what he’s learned over the years he’s devoted to inviting strangers into his home, I have to agree with Jacobs. He’s paid attention to all the people he’s encountered and he tells me some home truths such as artists should own their work rather than waiting for a magic moment where they’re “secure enough” to do so, and that relying on grants means always gearing the work toward getting a grant rather than doing what you want. He also believes government funding has lead to things not costing anywhere near what they should, and has lead to people devaluing work. “We have to be able to live apart from that, if you’re dependent upon something then you’re screwed.”
He seems to be taking the same attitude when it comes to his current home and the place he’s been showing films since 1992. Though I’m sure he’d like to stay, if he doesn’t have that opportunity he’s not reliant on the space to continue Cineforum. “Everything that Rochdale was about is here,” he says of the space we’re sitting in. “This place might close but when I move it goes with me.”