The Cineforum Is Dead! Long Live the Cineforum!
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The Cineforum Is Dead! Long Live the Cineforum!

The exterior of the Cineforum as of Monday evening, after the neon light had been switched off.

Last Monday, we stopped by the Cineforum on Bathurst to chat with local cinephile, filmmaker, educator, autodidact, and folk hero Reg Hartt about the on-again, off-again status of his infamous screening space. By Saturday, it was closed. Under orders from the City of Toronto Municipal Licensing & Standards Division, Reg Hartt closed his doors. The neon “Cineforum” sign in the bay window of the apartment (a gift from one of Hartt’s friends, a neon sculptor) was shut off and the website has since been taken down. There will be no more characteristic monochrome Cineforum leaflets plastered to telephone poles around the city, advertising the forthcoming screening of The Jazz Singer or Dark Side of Oz. It’s the end of Toronto’s most inimitable film-going haunt. Maybe.

Google “Cineforum” and you may no longer find the homepage for Hartt’s living-room hangout. But you will find scads of local news pieces chronicling its death, re-birth, and re-death. (In 2008, we reported that Hartt would have to shut down, only to see him plug it out for nearly another two years.) Like its wily, wickedly intelligent proprietor, the Cineforum is an unruly beast, one that always seems to evade pronouncements of its own demise. But by Hartt’s own admission—decreed in a lengthy email he sent to Mayor David Miller on August 23 (cc’d were city councillors, Licensing & Standards officers, and reporters working everywhere from the Globe to NOW to The Catholic Register)—”the Cineforum is dead.”
Since 1992, the house at 463 Bathurst has served as both Hartt’s home and the Cineforum, a cinephile’s wet dream. Books about Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and John Grierson pack shelves, rubbing spines with the works of William Gibson and a novelization of Star Trek IV. Posters of silent films line the walls, perched beneath latex masks of the Universal Monsters.

The interior of the Cineforum.

Hartt himself sits wearing a Nosferatu t-shirt, calmly explaining his situation, his characteristically crested eyebrows making him look very much like a sort-of civic trickster: a local iconoclast happy to serve as a thorn in the side of the City’s stymied politics. For over an hour, he talks with us about the Cineforum, and the various problems he has encountered working as a film programmer and educator in Toronto for over forty years, peppering his eloquent tirade with quotations from Northrop Frye and Bernardo Bertolucci, thoughtfully stoking the pyres on which he seems all too willing to martyr himself. When he says things like “I give people a chance to free themselves from the slavery of -isms,” it’s hard to tell if Hartt is serious, or merely grooming his well-established idea of himself. It’s likely a little of both.
For his part, Reg Hartt is insistent that the Cineforum is not, strictly speaking, a cinema. “It’s a school, not a theatre,” he tells us, before elaborating to say that he considers it more of a public forum for learning about and discussing ideas, comparing it to Gertrude Stein’s Parisian salon. But the fact remains that a large part of the space’s function is screening films for which attendees pay admission. Thus, according to Elizabeth Glibbery, the Toronto and East York Manager of the Municipal Licensing & Standards Division, it operates as a place of public assembly, for which the building is not zoned.”[He is] inviting in people who may not be known to him,” Glibbery told us, when asked how a group of people gathered at the Cineforum differs from a group of friends gathered to watch a DVD at any other apartment in the Toronto.

Reg Hartt: activist, educator, civic prankster.

After receiving a complaint earlier this year, Hartt was issued a notice of violation on March 30, but kept operating more or less undaunted. But last Friday, two Licensing & Standards officers approached the Cineforum’s typically wide-open door and politely stated that Hart had to stop operating a cinema in his apartment.
Glibbery notes that Hartt, in conjunction with the building’s owner, can apply to have the building re-zoned. Hartt’s not interested. “I don’t want to run a theatre where two or three people may show up,” Hartt told us on Tuesday. “To run a business like that is mad.” Instead, he’s planning to re-jig his beloved Cineforum by not charging admission and ensuring that the people of Toronto know that the screenings are only open to friends of Reg Hartt. Sly as ever, he notes that “the bulk of the city is my friend. My friends are legion.” Hartt plans to name the new program “Public Enemy,” a nod to Henry Miller’s quip that “every English artist of any worth has always been seen as public enemy number one,” as well as Hartt’s long-gone screening space in Yorkville, and his own ego. He also has plans to launch a course in 3D filmmaking (he claims he owns every 3D film ever made, as well as several 3D camcorders, one of which he shows us shortly after we showed up at his door).

Hartt showing off part of his impressive arsenal of 3D recording and projecting equipment.

In his recent email to Mayor Miller, Hartt cites his long-time friend and supporter Jane Jacobs: “In THE DEATH AND LIFE OF THE GREAT AMERICAN CITIES [bolding and caps sic] Jane Jacobs writes that the real culture of cities rises from the cities not from artificially created things like Dundas Square or Cinematheque Ontario or…but from the people of the city and always like mushrooms spring up, seemingly by magic, during the night. She adds that nearly always cities seek ways to destroy these magic things that spring up seemingly out of nowhere.”
Speaking to us, he’s even more frank, disputing the benefits of emerging screening facilities like the Toronto Underground Cinema and the Bell Lightbox. “The culture of a city rises up from what I’m doing here,” he says. Perhaps as the Cineforum is revived (yet again) as Public Enemy, the culture Reg Hartt has laboured for decades to cultivate will continue to flourish. He says that friends have offered to let him set up shop in London and New York to continue his series of underground screenings, lectures, and seminars. But considering Hartt’s steadfast conviction in his work (and his proclivity for acts, or at least emails, of considerable grandiloquence), and his willingness to turn the Cineforum into a Jacobsian staging ground for an urban turf war, we don’t think he’ll be going anywhere soon.
Above the door at 463 Bathurst is that old inscription from Dante’s Divine Comedy, painted in Greek: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.” But as long as the public (or, at the very least, the abundant friends of Reg Hartt) can enter, we see no need to prematurely abandon hope for the Cineforum.
Photos by D.A. Cooper/Torontoist.