Bidding Farewell to Reg Hartt’s Cineforum, Again
Maybe this time it's closed for good? We remember the weird rite of passage that was Cineforum.
The Cineforum is dead. Again. “For good” this time. For now, at least.
Of course, we’ve been down this road before. It seems that every few years, Reg Hartt announces that his homegrown movie theatre (located in the parlour of his house at 463 Bathurst St.) is shutting down. He’s used a variety of tactics to keep the city officials at bay: his theatre is “a club,” or maybe it’s “a gathering of friends,” and actually you pay “a donation,” not an entry fee. For years he had an ally in his old friend Jane Jacobs (“The best part of a Reg Hartt presentation is what he has to say,” he quotes her as saying). He was once even saved by the late Mayor Ford, and thereafter became an unwavering Ford National (including producing a 3D documentary of Ford Fest).
More recently, he’s found himself in bitter conflict with James Gillis (aka “Dr. Jamie”), Toronto’s ruthless poster baron and his chief competition for bulletin-board space. The enmity has played out through a series of veiled threats and potentially libellous accusations via poster. Hartt, who just turned 70, cites his battles with Gillis and renewed city zoning issues as the reasons for his retirement. “This week I found myself more physically drained and exhausted than I have ever been,” he wrote on his blog. “It’s clear the City is not going to stand up for the rights the Supreme Court stood up for. It’s also clear I am wearing myself out.”
Reg Hartt: activist, educator, civic prankster. File photo by D.A. Cooper.
He opened his house to the public in 1992, but has played movies in Toronto since the ’60s (most famously at Rochdale College). Most people I know have been to only one of his screenings, if any. Words like “creepy” and “scary” are common. Well, pull up a chair and allow me your indulgence, because your old Uncle Will is about to stroll down memory lane. I have ambivalent feelings about the Cineforum, but a lot of fond memories too, and I think Toronto’s film culture will be poorer without it.
When I was a kid, I was enticed by those black-and-white posters advertising Metropolis, Nosferatu, and other movies Blockbuster didn’t have. For a young movie buff in the suburbs, the Cineforum gave the vibe of a certain kind of downtown bohemia. I remember going for the first time on my fourteenth birthday to see a program of Charlie Chaplin shorts. I remember Hartt’s lengthy intro, in which he argued that Chaplin’s genius was fostered by his creative mother and vaudeville upbringing, and emphatically not the school system.
In high school, I told my friends about “this guy who runs a movie theatre in his house,” and I remember their horrified looks when I suggested we go. As an undergrad, I remember getting piss-drunk with friends and going to his What I Learned from LSD presentation (turns out it was a two-hour video of Hartt telling his life story, only periodically touching on LSD). I remember seeing his “Sex and Violence Cartoon Festival,” where an obscure film called Eveready Harton in ‘Buried Teasure’ made me gasp with laughter. I remember seeing the banned Rolling Stones documentary Cocksucker Blues next to a middle-aged longhair who got up and danced to all the songs. It’s one thing to see a movie like Cocksucker Blues from the comfort of a museum; it’s another to see it in a place where it still feels dangerous.
The scene outside the Cineforum in 2010, during a previous closure scare. Photo by D.A. Cooper.
Literally every student journalist has profiled Reg Hartt at some point. For me, this rite of passage came in 2008, when I was a second-year U of T student and writer for the Varsity. I was a Cinema Studies major, and the conversation with Hartt kept coming back to this. “When people come out and pay their money to see a film, they’ve come to be astonished, and when you’re in a classroom, you’re not sitting there to be astonished,” he said. “It’s a whole attitude of superiority to what you’re seeing. … Something happens with a movie that’s more than 10 years old. When a movie’s more than 10 years old people expect it to be much more serious than a contemporary film. Usually, students especially miss the mark on them, largely the fault of their teachers, who bring a great weight to this work that was never there in the first place.”
During another Cineforum closure scare in 2012, I wrote an appreciation of the Cineforum for the now-defunct A.V. Club Toronto. I was probably thinking of the guy in my class who called Bergman’s Persona “the biggest waste of time I’ve ever seen” when I wrote: “The relentlessness of Hartt’s attacks on the education system can be wearying, but I wonder if he might be on to something. On a visceral level, I have rarely felt a film’s greatness in a classroom, but I have often felt it at the Cineforum.”
A provocative statement—and, once I started seeing it on every Reg Hartt poster on every street corner in town, a regrettable one. It’s true that a classroom is not an ideal place to be swept away, but from Bazin to Baudrillard, a proper cinema studies education offers extraordinary range of approaches not only to film, but philosophy in general. But, alas, I wrote these words, so I accepted the responsibility of living with them.
Then one day in 2014, another poster appeared on Toronto’s streets, once again featuring the dreaded quote, this time in huge font next to a picture of yours truly (looking every bit the childish goofball who would write such a thing). Beneath my photo, a caption: “Will Sloan is making a mark for himself as one of Canada’s most interesting new writers. On top of that he is hot. Folks are lining up to jump in his bed.”
I wrote Hartt an email telling him that this was embarrassing and inappropriate. He seemed to think he was doing me a favour: “That bit about folks lining up to jump in your bed might not be true now but it ought to be, should be and, I have a hunch, will be.” I asked him to stop using the poster, and to take the image down from his website. A few days later, he wrote on his blog: “Will Sloan emailed me after I posted this asking that I remove the description of him as hot. He said it is embarrassing. Embarassing [sic]? There is the triumph of our school system. It produces men without balls, eunuchs.” He concluded the post with: “So, Will, don’t email me asking me to remove this because I won’t. If that means I don’t see you again, well, the loss is yours.”
I haven’t been back since. On his blog, he likes to position himself as the last honest man in a city full of phonies: “You won’t find me invited to speak at TIFF, The Bell Lightbox, Dialogues on Ideas or any of those places,” he writes here; “You won’t find media film writers at The Cineforum,” he writes here. He likes to quote Jane Jacobs’ saying, “Old ideas are sometimes found in new buildings. New ideas often need old buildings.” Hartt fancies the Cineforum to be a salon for the arts, and maybe new ideas do emerge there, but Hartt’s own writings are now little more than lists of people who have praised him, and vitriol towards those who haven’t.
But, despite everything, I admire Hartt’s commitment to the history of cinema. Un-beholden to the whims of the market, Reg keeps showing Chaplin, Keaton, Griffith, Murnau, Lang, Stroheim, Riefenstahl, Bunuel, Pasolini, Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi, Todd Browning, Tex Avery, and Winsor McCay. He once brought the great Looney Tunes animators Friz Freleng and Bob Clampett to Toronto, and still plays their cartoons uncensored. With his unique scoring of silent films (including, yes, Nosferatu to the music of Radiohead), he finds ways to make dusty canonical classics come alive.
Though his strict opposition to film academia is an intellectual dead-end, I admire how he treats the classics as living, breathing entertainments. Here’s something he said in my old interview, circa second-year university, that has always stuck with me: “For years they’d show Battleship Potemkin in film class either silent, or somebody chording on a piano, or somebody playing symphonies or waltzes or something. And then they finally found the original Edmund Meisel score. … That score was so powerful that Hitler had it destroyed. But then when the Meisel score was rediscovered, people went, ‘Oh, it’s an action film.’ Well, the movie was made for the public! It wasn’t made for a bunch of intellectual academics: it was made for the raw public. Of course it’s an action film!”