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The Varsity Interview: Reg Hartt

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Reg Hartt, a film archivist, programmer, and lecturer has been showing rare and obscure films since the 1960s. In 1992 Hartt moved his screenings into his living room at 463 Bathurst Street, with 20 seats and a big screen, and started a venue called The Cineforum.

Due to a complaint earlier this year to the city’s Licensing and Standards division about Hartt running a business from his home, the Cineforum’s existence was altered. Though Hartt can longer charge admission, and the neon-lit Cineforum sign is out, the doors remain open to the public.

The Varsity: For those out there who have seen your posters but never stepped into your living room for a screening, what would you tell them to expect?

Reg Hartt: I’m everything your parents warned you against. (grins)

TV: That sounds pretty good. That always lures people in I think.

RH: I think so, too. If you never have enough guts to do what your parents told you not to do, you’re worthless, dead meat. Go away, don’t bother me.

TV: So you’re all about the revolutionary spirit?

RH: Well, there’s not enough of it.
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TV: I saw the Henri Langlois quote on your website…

RH: Yeah isn’t that cool?

TV: That’s a good quote.

RH: That’s a bitchin’ quote!

TV: “An art form requires genius. People of genius are always troublemakers, meaning they start from scratch, demolish accepted norms and rebuild a new world. The problem with cinema today is the dearth of troublemakers. There’s not a rabble-rouser in sight. There was still one, but he went beyond troublemaker to court jester. He clobbered the status quo. That’s Godard. We’re fresh out of ‘bad students.’ You’ll find students masquerading as bad ones, but you won’t find the real article, because a genuine bad student upends everything.” Langlois’ words introduce the viewer to your website. Is this supposed scarcity of truly revolutionary spirits in cinema the reason why you aren’t screening much contemporary material?

RH: No, I show contemporary films as well. You know people look at these films I show as old movies. These are not old movies! Films from the teens and the twenties are films from the youth of the cinema and when we’re young we’re daring, we’re bold, we take chances, we don’t mind upsetting people. It’s just that energy and when we get older everything gets muted and seasoning is taken out. Today’s movies are arthritic. They’re toned down to such a degree or they’re marketed to their specific target audience to let them know in advance that they may be shocked by this. Well, I’m sorry but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s just that “boom”, that splash of cold water in the face that wakes us up. Once things become an industry they become a product.

TV: Where does your love for film come from?

RH: I don’t have a love for film, I have a love for ideas. I much prefer books because with a book I’m much more in contact with one mind speaking clearly and with movies you’re not getting that. My interest in film began when I was 12 years old in grade six. They carted us off to see an MGM movie, The Knights of the Roundtable, based on Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I was determined to one day tell that story right. When you’re twelve you think that way. Today I’m no longer determined to tell that story right because movies to me are for the most part not worth the time and the money to spend making them. People go to see them and they say, “Wow that was terrific.” It’s like a heroin addict – they just want their next fix immediately after the last one.

TV: You don’t think a film can be a lasting experience, that it gets you to think and grow more ideas?

RH: No. Reading is a lasting experience. Even there…well it depends on what we’re reading. We’re feeding the brain with ideas when we’re reading. With movies we’re observing and the ideas tend to get lost.

TV: If you think that books are much more experience worthy, why don’t you have a library?

RH: I do!

TV: For the public?

RH: Well, the whole place here is for the public. It’s not a lending library but for anybody who comes in and shows a spark it’s a resource centre. People are allowed and have always been allowed access to the material. I attract bright people; I don’t get the dumb ones.

TV: Let’s talk about the City of Toronto. You and Toronto – is that a love-hate relationship?

RH: No, I love Toronto. And the city loves me. I’m not going to stand by quietly when a bureaucrat says you can’t do what you’re doing, you’re charging admission. I’m sorry, Cinematheque Ontario is charging admission, and does that make them a business? It’s not a thing that’s different anywhere else, it’s not like the City of Toronto is being mean to me. It’s the way bureaucrats are.

TV: Have you ever considered going somewhere else?

RH: I had offers to take what I do out of here and they’re not acceptable because once I move from here then everything changes. See, in here one person can walk in and I’m not going to have a problem putting a program on just for them. But in a bar I can’t do that. In a club I can’t do that. In a space I rent, I can’t afford to do that. So then I have got to program things I know that will put bums on seats; if it’s in a bar things that will put bums on seats and things that those bums will drink during, so the whole parameter of the thing changes. “Cine” means film, and forum is a place where you talk, discuss ideas and that’s what this place has been: it’s been a forum.

TV: How can you keep this up without taking admission?

RH: I don’t know. It’s called living by faith. I’ve been putting faith in this idea for a long time and I know the idea is true. I’m not really concerned about that, I shouldn’t be. The thing is, you can’t come to these screenings unless you’re my friend and friends take care of each other. I learned to do things with nothing. My uncle was furious with me for not riding the grants carpet, but I just felt that it would be more important to learn how to do things on my own and self-reliance. And I’m not in favour of grants for the arts, chiefly because the people who receive those things all too often sneer at the public and, again, because an artist, a real artist, is called to be a witness against your time and I don’t think you can be a witness against the beast when they’re feeding you. It‘s bad manners. (laughs) I don’t do this to make money. I do this because I love the works I’m presenting to people and I love the people who are coming through my door. All of them, even the ones who are nasty.

TV: You’re not allowed to put up posters anymore?

RH: No, I’m putting up posters. The posters say “Films at Reg Hartt’s place,” and they make it clear that you can’t come unless you’re a friend of Reg Hartt’s. It’s all very inside the law. Actually, “Films at Reg Hartt’s” are a lot friendlier than “Films at the Cineforum.”

TV: How come?

RH: Because a person is always friendlier than an institution.

TV: I have noticed that your program is almost exclusively composed of foreign films and music. I’m just wondering about Canadian films. How do you see the Canadian- –

RH: I don’t.

TV: Why?

RH: The government. Today in this country people go to film school and then they apply for grants and then they make movies. They make them for their friends; they make them for their grants-giving committees. They’re boring – they themselves are boring.

TV: There’s no exception there?

RH: None. If there were, they would be standing up.