Font Size

”Here,” says Reg Hartt, ushering me past grimy French doors to a wooden institutional chair in a narrow, black-painted room at the front of his dilapidated Victorian row house on Bathurst Street in Toronto. “Put your feet up,” he says, turning around a chair and patting the seat.

“Just like home,” he continues, smiling his gap-toothed grin. The room, two actually, a former living room adjoined to a former dining room, is cool, the only air-conditioned space in his rented house. There is no one else in attendance.

Books, musty-smelling books, on every subject imaginable, line two of the walls in red plastic milk cartons. They have a presence, a heavy one, and it’s that of their owner’s obsession. A sample: books on American literature, biographies (Anthony Perkins, Garth Drabinsky, among others), a few tomes on the MGM story, scholarly publications on French cinema, a book entitled Anatomy of Dirty Words. “Relax,” he encourages, as I take in his wiggling bushy eyebrows, his penetrating sloe-eyed glance, his baggy shorts, his homeless-style ratty T-shirt.

Oh yes, this is one of those weird deep-downtown Toronto experiences. Hartt has been called the godfather of underground film in Canada. He never went to university or had any formal education in film. For 30 years, he has screened films in a variety of locations: bars and public libraries and churches, at the University of Toronto’s Innis College and, since 1992, — because he wants to be “free of harassment” and “to do things as I like” — in his house.

Well, he’s a godfather of something, sitting alone in his kitchen, or on his front stoop, beer belly, sandal-clad feet and all, waiting for people to wander into his brothel of cinematic ideas, which he calls Cineforum. He lays claim to being the first to screen the porn classic, Deep Throat, with Linda Lovelace, in the early seventies. He was arts programmer at the notorious Rochdale College on Bloor Street, home of the hippies, when he was secretly approached to find a bootleg copy of the film. He screened it at the college, charging $10 . . . or nothing if people came naked.

Hartt is a provocateur, and he tries to get a reaction not just from the films he shows, but from the things he says. He has kept me seated for a total of at least two hours. I had come the night before to see the much-banned Haxan (Witchcraft Through the Ages), directed by Benjamin Christensen. I was the only patron, and when I introduced myself to him as he ambled along the dusty hall from his kitchen, he started an extraordinary (unsolicited) extemporaneous monologue about his life.

I never did see the movie. (Note: When she called I suggested she come on a Sunday when I programmed several films to different audiences, not introduce herself until she left and observe. She did not come on a Sunday. She walked in later in the week half an hour AFTER the first showtime scheduled–7pm–and left half an hour BEFORE the second showtime–9pm. She asked if she could see a film of my choosing the next afternoon).

His kitchen is filled with odd boxes and stacks of things: books, eggs, beer bottles, sacks of flour, Styrofoam cups, old magazines, dirty dishes, boxes of cereal. His mind holds odd bits of things as well. They’re like film clips, these odd bits of memory which he flashes before me. And many sound apocryphal. I heard about when he was six years old and came upon a group of boys in his hometown of Chipman, N.B., who “were doing weird things with their plumbing that I’d never seen before.” He told me, with a leer, that he is bisexual. (I’m not in the habit of leering at folks).

I heard about a bus trip he took to Los Angeles in the early seventies, and a guy he met at the end of it, a Charles Manson type, he explains, who slipped him a elephant tranquilizer and told him he’d be dead by morning. He meditated, and decided to write a letter to Mae West to pass the time. “I let the drug pass through me,” he explains to me, wide-eyed.

I heard about his musings on the I Ching and on the Bible. “You are talking to someone who fell in love with those ideas,” he rambles on. He has had more epiphanies than one person should be allowed, he says. Once, he spent a week meditating on God in front of Douglas Fairbanks’s grave. Why? It is lined with cedar trees and there’s a long pond, he explains. “Oh, and a cemetery is perfect for meditation,” he continues without missing a beat. “Dead men don’t ask questions.”

About film, he is equally if not more effusive. One of eight children whose father was a railway engineer, he moved with his family to Sault Ste. Marie as a teenager. He came across a magazine, Famous Monsters in Filmland, and saw an advertisement for a copy of Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic. With money he had made working part-time at Kentucky Fried Chicken, he sent away for a copy and thus began his collection of films and animation classics.

He owns the only print in Canada of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation that was shown at the Liberty Theatre in New York in 1915. He has the only complete print in existence of Paramount’s 1933 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a rare 1922 version of Nosferatu (the first Dracula), a 1934 version of Ben-Hur, among many others. His animation collection includes a complete set of original Technicolour Superman cartoons and first appearances of Popeye, Daffy Duck, Betty Boop, Elmer Fudd, and Bugs Bunny. He won’t say how many reels he has nor how much they’re worth.

He loves the role of iconoclast. That’s what he prefers to discuss at length. “Film people don’t like me. They’re shallower than the shallowest creek in New Brunswick,” he says. “They want to look at human beings on the screen, human beings that won’t disappoint you.” Hartt, by contrast, wants to disturb his audience. He sees himself as an artist, as a James Joyce or a Victor Hugo or a Henry Miller, whose work irritates the establishment. To be snubbed, as Hartt has been by film elites, is affirmation of his mission. “I came here to see a silent film,” an audience member once sniffed at a public screening. (Hartt is notorious for his learned and rambling lectures before he shows a film.) He walked out and took his film and projector with him.

He begins a long diatribe about his screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, Hilter’s propaganda piece in which he is depicted as the Messiah, with a story about a father and son who came to see it in his house. After Hartt’s talk at the start of the film the father looked at him and said: “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?” Hartt just smiled at him, as the father unleashed a vicious anti-Semitic attack. “How could you just stand there?” someone later asked him, he recalls. “And I said, ‘You weren’t seeing what I was seeing. For the first time, that son was witnessing his father’s ugliness.’ That moment put a schism between them forever,” he beams.

I had to stop him on that evening of impromptu monologue about the life and times of 55-year-old Reg Hartt. It was too much. I had to tell him that I’d come back in the morning. Talking to him, or rather, listening to him, is like watching too many Bergman films. Tomorrow, I said, show me a film of your choice. “Ah,” he smiled. ” Phantom of the Opera!”

So now as he lowers the lights, and the clicking sound of the 1925 silent film running through the ancient projector fills the room, I wonder what message he wants to impart by screening this film. He doesn’t say anything other than, “This is the film that turned me on to films.” He also explains that he has painstakingly put a musical soundtrack together, consisting of pieces of J. S. Bach ( Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor), Tchaikovsky ( Swan Lake) and Richard Wagner ( Tristan und Isolde), among others, to accompany the film. When it was originally screened, there would have been a 60- to 120-piece orchestra playing, he explains.

But otherwise, Hartt sits at the back of the room, quiet throughout. At the intermission, he plonks himself down beside me to offer his cornucopia of arcane movie facts. Carl Laemmle, the producer of the film and head of Universal Pictures at the time, happened to come to Paris in 1922 and picked up a copy of Gaston Leroux’s book, which was not deemed a success. Lon Chaney, who plays the Phantom, was known as “the man of a thousand faces” because of his skill with makeup. The son of deaf-mutes, he had great empathy for people who were considered outside the “norm.” Mary Philbin, who played Christine, enjoyed her greatest success with this film. But still, Hartt does not reveal why this is his favorite flick.

That, he wouldn’t divulge until the end, until, in the cool darkened room, he explained his love of the ending. In Leroux’s original work, the Phantom was a sentimental soul who accepts that Christine would reject him for his ugliness and go off with Raoul, the handsome but witless suitor, played by Norman Kerry. But for the film, the ending was changed to make it more dramatic, Hartt explains. The Phantom is chased through the streets by a mob. He has the choice to jump into the Seine to escape but he doesn’t. “He realizes that the world exists without love!” Hartt says exuberantly. “This film is my story. I felt like a monster as a boy when I first saw this at 14. I think many children do.” At that young age, he understood the message that there is no such thing as love? “Oh yes. Oh yes,” he breathes. Then, out of the blue, he quotes a line from a poem by Anna Akhmatova: ” Some good-for-nothing — who knows why — / Made up the tale that love exists on earth.

That’s the message Reg Hartt wants to impart about his life and the reason for his obsessive interest in film? Well, yes. It has iconoclasm written all over it, of course. To a culture that feeds itself on the cozy ideal of love and Hallmark-induced sentimentality, it is a contrary and bracing thought. He tells me he has given up on lovers of both sexes. “Not worth the aggravation,” he scoffs. “I’d rather give out God’s love.”

But I can’t help thinking, as I stumble out of the darkness into the wall of Toronto’s humidity, that there is something self-serving in his delight in this anarchy, this nihilism.

He waves at me delightedly from his stoop, with his feet propped up on the banister. He knows what I know. People who are what the rest of us cannot be are always accorded some measure of admiration. They have a following, and in that, there is some genuine, backhanded affection.

The Globe and Mail

« »