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“Could this be your last chance to hear Reg Hartt?”

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While the streets of Toronto are always plastered with his black-and-white sheets of office paper, advertising offbeat film screenings and idiosyncratic cultural events, reading this slogan was the first time that one of Reg Hartt’s posters darkened my mood. How strange to imagine a Toronto where Charlie Chaplin, Bugs Bunny, Jane Jacobs, and Leni Riefenstahl won’t be found on every telephone pole. For a brief period during the last month, it appeared that the Cineforum, the legendary movie theatre Hartt runs out of his living room at 463 Bathurst St., would be without a home for the first time in decades after the announcement that Hartt’s landlord was selling the property.

The Cineforum has existed in one form or another for 40 years, but only in 1992 did Hartt move into the Bathurst house. British painter Peter Moore called it “the most perfect place in the world to watch a movie,” and it does indeed have a certain ambience. The floors are creaky; about 14 office chairs face the screen; bookshelves made of fruit baskets line the walls underneath posters of A Clockwork Orange and The Phantom of the Opera.

Hartt’s ramshackle theatre has made him a legend in the Toronto arts scene and the man has always been a savvy self-promoter. His “lectures” before screenings (loosely inspired by the films, but fairly wide-ranging) and special monologues about his life experiences (“What I Learned from LSD” is a popular show) make attending the Cineforum as much about seeing Reg Hartt as about the films. “Oh, I’m not talking for the sake of talking,” Hartt tells me in an interview. “I’m giving you information that’s designed to enhance what you’re seeing. It may appear to be off-the-wall, but watching the movie, it takes on a context of its own.”

Hartt is a film collector whose library of 8, 16, and 35mm prints includes rare copies of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the 1933 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and a complete set of Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. He also knows how to put on a show: he has experimented with innovative silent film scoring (i.e. setting Nosferatu to Radiohead) and creative forms of film presentation (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein in 3D?). While the Cineforum is as important to Toronto’s film landscape as Cinematheque Ontario, I suspect Hartt’s anti-establishment side would resent such a comparison.

What do I mean by “anti-establishment”?

Consider Hartt’s explanation of his early film collecting. “I wanted to see films like Metropolis and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Battleship Potemkin,” he says, “and I found that I could buy these films on 8mm for what then was an awful lot of money, and I did. And when I got to Toronto, people found out I had these movies and wanted to see, so they asked me to start showing them. So the screenings began because people asked me to do them, and I found that I could learn a lot more showing these films to a paying public than I could in a classroom, because 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. It’s a whole attitude of superiority to what you’re seeing.”

Note that halfway through his answer, Hartt’s personal remembrance becomes an indictment of the education system. Indeed, what Hartt perceives as the corrupt nature of schooling is a topic that frequently arises both in his public lectures and in private conversation. His own early school experiences were unhappy, and Hartt has concluded that the education system is the enemy of individuality, serving only to strengthen the status quo. The first time I went to the Cineforum, Hartt introduced a selection of Charlie Chaplin shorts by explaining how Chaplin’s genius was honed from his music hall upbringing—not, Hartt stressed, formal education.

There was a key educational experience that shaped Hartt’s life and worldview, but it certainly wasn’t Olde Oxford. At Rochdale College, an experimental education environment in Toronto during the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hartt first developed a reputation as a film collector and connoisseur. “It was 18 floors,” he says. “[We were] allowed the use of hashish, LSD, marijuana, mescaline…and the higher you went, the higher you got.”

“It was designed to be an experiment in self-education,” he continues. “There were no teachers; there were no classes; everyone who was a Rochdalian was called upon to be their own teacher.” At Rochdale, Hartt frequently organized film screenings, including a retrospective of the Universal Horror movies, and what he claims was the first Canadian presentation of Deep Throat. (Admission was $10, or free if you came nude.)

But is an organization like Rochdale a viable alternative? “It’s the only alternative,” says Hartt. “It teaches self-reliance. I had a fellow here from Uruguay who needed some money, and I didn’t want to loan it to him because he’d be in my debt. So I told him to clean up the grass on the front lawn. I didn’t expect him to do a good job because so few people actually do, but I went away and came back and he did a spectacular job. I said, ‘Where’d you learn to cut grass like that?’ He said, ‘First time my mother asked me to cut the grass, I went to my grandfather and said, “Grandfather, how do you cut grass?” and he said, “Do it like the first man.”’ That’s the secret right there: do everything like the first man. First man had no teachers.”

Isn’t there value in having instructors? “I had no end of people—and a lot of them were just ordinary people—who taught me a heck of a lot. But that’s because I’m paying attention to my life, and if someone gives me information, I sit down and listen. Oscar Hammerstein III once said that the most sophisticated thing one person could say to another is, ‘I know nothing about that, please tell me.’”

Hartt is especially critical of film classes. “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.”

Hartt the conversationalist is the same as Hartt the lecturer: forceful, opinionated, and bursting with knowledge about seemingly every aspect of early cinema. He takes movies very seriously, but he resents the seriousness scholars bring to them. “Movies are about making money. That’s what they’re about, and anyone who wants to say different can say different, but they’re about puttin’ bums on seats and paying for themselves. There have been great artists who have been able to work in the medium of film, and other ones who couldn’t do that for whatever reason.”

In an e-mail shortly before press time, Hartt announced with considerable enthusiasm that his landlord had changed his mind about selling the house, and that the venue would be safe from sale for the foreseeable future. So it’s back to business as usual for the Cineforum. This month sees the return of my favourite of Hartt’s programs, The Sex and Violence Cartoon Festival, which compiles uncensored cartoons from the ’30s and ’40s, previously sanitized for kid-friendly video and television. Most of them feature the expected line-up of famous rabbits, ducks, and sailor men, but here’s one I’ll bet you haven’t seen: Eveready Harton in Buried Treasure, an unspeakably graphic film about a little man with a giant, removable erection. Says Hartt: “In the early 1930s in New York, they had a party to honour Winsor McCay, the father of American animation. All the studios in New York had a hand in making this cartoon. There were five thousand people assembled in this hall, and no one knew what they were about to see, and when that thing came on the screen, it blew the roof off.”

Some of the cartoons have never been released on video. Bob Clampett’s Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs recasts the Snow White characters as outrageous black stereotypes, and while most scholars consider it a dynamic, technically brilliant cartoon, they also admit to its staggering racism. That’s why I’m surprised when Hartt—who doesn’t take “scholars” very seriously—denies this charge, positioning the cartoon instead as a celebration of black culture.

In a follow-up e-mail, I compare Coal Black to D.W. Griffith’s pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation. Hartt, to my surprise, denies that even Birth is racist, writing that it “remains the only honest film about the American Civil War and the aftermath of Reconstruction from the point of view of the White South,” and citing the work of historians who have investigated its historical claims. Yet regardless of its factual accuracy, any film that ends with a “heroic” scene of the Klan intimidating a group of black citizens from voting hardly seems like a plea for tolerance. Doesn’t that scene speak for itself?

Hartt begins the e-mail with a quote from David Mamet: “The American educational process prepares those with second-rate intellects to thrive in a bureaucratic environment. Obedience, rote memorization, and neatness are enshrined as intellectual achievements.”

Though Hartt is a divisive figure in the Canadian film community, he maintains that much of the establishment dislikes him. Visiting the Cineforum, I ask him why this is. “I had a couple of dogs I raised from pups, and I never put them on leads unless I had to,” he says. “And dogs that were chained hated those dogs. The slave always hates the free man.” Hartt grins and points at my recorder. “Put that in print.”