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Last Christmas At The Cineforum? Reg Hartt Says Maybe, Then A Lot More

“I read a book back in 1968 called the I Ching .”

Eyebrows on guard Reg Hartt settles into one of the well-worn seats crammed inside his legendary living room.

“I was 24 and I thought about what it had to say, which is, if you trust yourself you become the centre of the universe.”

He’s been certain of as much ever since.

Hartt is the founder and operator of Bathurst Street film/flop house Cineforum. He is himself a Toronto icon, in his time rubbing elbows and switching reels with a cast that ranges from Jane Jacobs to the original animator of Betty Boop, a man named Grim Natwick who’s immortalized in a signed photo on a wall in the townhouse at 463.

Hartt’s posters ( Kid Dracula, Sex & Violence Cartoon Festival) alone have been seen by hundreds of thousands, and he’s got more to say about life then you could ever hear. Just ask him.

“You haven’t got the time,” Hartt responds with the slightest of smiles when asked to explain everything that led to a possible eviction from the now-iconic address.

Only a blog post on the Cineforum site can explain it succinctly enough.

“…I can’t fight my landlord, especially when they have been good to me,” Hartt writes in a blog from Nov. 20. “But… My original landlord and his wife survived the Nazis to whom both lost their entire families. He passed on a few years back. She has kept it together but now time is having its effect. I got the notice from her son the house is being sold.”

And so the farewell run begins. Cue the quintessential Toronto lament about another chunk of city history killed by a failure to prioritize.

Sort of.

“There’s no anger or remorse or any of that sort of crap,” he says, surrounded by decades of memories, ghosts of strangers and strange people from all sides of the globe, Hollywood memorabilia, hundreds of books, 16mm reels and a box of 3-D glasses.

“People say, well you’re not going to be able to show your films, it’s not the films I give a goddamn about, it’s the people coming through here that I’m meeting and learning from, it’s that interaction.”

That interaction itself is a piece of the city’s history, extending from Hartt’s dedication to the I Ching and the influence of Rochdale College – Toronto’s infamous late 60s experiment in alternate education.

“If you’d told me as a kid that I was going to show films out of my house and invite absolute strangers into it and enjoy meeting them I’d have laughed at you,” he says as you transfer from projector room to screen room past a history chart and a few stacks of those ubiquitous posters.

“We need to be able to get strangers into our life, it’s the only way that things actually work. Everything in our current world is based on the idea of keeping the stranger out – we triple lock our doors – always welcome the stranger into your house because it could be the lord in disguise.”

It’s comments, nay, rants like that which create so much polarization around the character that is Reg Hartt. But being with him in his environment is evidence he really isn’t about the films, but is someone who’s dedicated his life – for better and worse – to this simple, if slightly unorthodox ideal.

“You do a web search, you get two reactions,” Hartt explains, undoubtedly speaking from extensive experience. “People who have never been here say, ‘Oh it’s a crazy old guy with jet-puffed eyebrows and he looks really weird and he invites people into his house, (in a Tommy Chong impression) it’s really strange man.’

“Then you get the people who actually pass through here. They’re movers and shakers, all of them.”

It’s hardly the most far-fetched thing he’ll say. Hartt can point to many, many a friend or visitor you’ve heard of, or at least should have.

“He was a Tibetan lama and was crossing Canada on his first visit with the Dalai Lama,” Hartt says of one particularly memorable passer-through. “Now how often do you get to sit down in your kitchen and get drunk with someone like that?”

Not very.

Which is why despite his insistence, brave though it is, that he’s already fielding invitations from all over the world (he surely is), Reg Hartt is inextricably attached to what he’s created in that windswept corridor between College and Dundas.

“This place is like a university, you can learn here,” Hart remembers being told by another stopper-in. “Some do, most don’t,” he recalls replying.

“But it sure as hell beats going downtown to one of the bars where all they’re gonna do is hose some money out of your pocket and the last thing you can do is get into a conversation because it’s too damn loud.”

And in that sense there’s still merit to the Cineforum. It’s no accident the name’s been alive – in one form or another – for 40 years and in its current figure since 1992.

“It helps to know the right people,” he explains, smirking. “Under the by-laws of Toronto you’re not allowed to invite people into your house. They shut me down for a while.”

If only the city was the current obstacle.

Instead of a few well-placed phone calls though, Hartt’s now attempting to sell his 16mm collection as part of a push to buy the house himself. That is if he does ultimately have to move.

“I haven’t been given notice to move, maybe I won’t be given notice to move,” Hartt counters with a side of nonchalance. “Maybe I will … maybe I’ll just decide to pack it up.”

It seems unlikely, but either way any new place would have to be just so. Reg Hartt’s only cut out to do one thing, and the Cineforum is it.

“The only thing that keeps me loving what I’m doing here is the people that actually walk through those doors,” he admits, moving next to a brush-stroked likeness gifted from a young Russian visitor.

“What I want is some place like this, with a beer store across the road – you’ve gotta have the oasis – where we can continue this.”

Perhaps such a place exists, and perhaps the man Toronto Life called, “Canada’s most loved and loathed film connoisseur,” can, as he promises on his website, “rise from the ashes.” But at least a part of the Cineforum story – a major part – will have been removed from the equation.

No amount of denial can bury that sad, if overly nostalgic reality.

“I don’t have a plan, John Lennon said life’s what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” he offers when asked what’s next. “Plans get in the way of seeing what’s happening … whatever happens next won’t be this, this when it finishes will be finished.”

And while that date is far from firm and the rest of the year features a full slate of films, there’s a degree of residual bitterness that cannot be hid.

“This is what happens, people come along, they do interesting s**t, the landlord (whoever that will be) says I can get more rent you gotta move out and the city loses an awful lot by it,” Hartt maintains.

And that’s where it’s hard to disagree. If the subject is Toronto history, film and general west-of-Spadina-nostalgia, there’s an undeniable attachment to the man and his address.

Even the always-lit sign, perched in the front window since, “before creation” is a mark of both trade and land.

“I had a neon sign that someone gave me back in 1980 that said Cineforum. I had some turbulent times and the sign got broken,” Hartt explains when asked about the beacon opposite the Beer Store.

“This neon artist came up to me and said, ‘let me make you a sign, what do you want it to say?’ and I said, ‘Cineforum.’ He came back two weeks later with this drop dead neon sign and he put it in a green case, an earthquake couldn’t break that sucker. I looked at it and thought, ‘You idiot, that’s what you get for hanging on to the past.’ The sign should’ve said Reg Hartt Presents!”

Maybe next time. After all a fresh start wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the man, even if the city loses a resource in the process.

Besides, he’ll talk to you, put you up and show you countless films, books and random junk, but there’s no way he’s ever gonna tell you what movies to see.

“I wouldn’t tell them,” he insists when asked if there’s one film everyone should watch.

“It ruins it for them, you have to find these things for yourself. Someone says go look at that, you go look at it and it’s ‘what’s the big deal.’

You’ve gotta let your brain lead you, your curiosity lead you.”

Those wild eyebrows twitch at the top corners of a big grin.

“If we allow ourselves to be led by our curiosity people think you’re crazy,” Hartt says.

Or at least the centre of the universe.

Reg Hartt is showing his two favourite movies – Lon Chaney’s Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Charlie Chaplin’s first film, City Lights (1931) on Christmas Day. Chaplin died on Christmas Day 1977.

The Last Christmas At The Cineforum

16mm Films For Sale

December Schedule For The Cineforum

aaron.miller@citynews.ca