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A Swiss Army knife of favorite documentary subgenres, Elan and Jonathan Bogarin’s Sundance NEXT competition entry 306 Hollywood feels simultaneously like the sort of heartfelt little film that often slips through the cracks without finding an audience and like one of the more universal and relatable films you’re ever likely to see.
306 Hollywood is a personal essay! It’s a tone poem! It’s a biographical collage! It’s an embrace of the banal kitschy! It’s magic realism! It’s such a little story you may wonder why it’s being told at all, except that it’s a story likely to touch anybody who has ever lost a loved one, which makes it a very big story.
The title refers to the house at 306 Hollywood Avenue. It’s a nondescript white house in a nondescript suburban New Jersey neighborhood. You could drive by it for years and never notice it, but it’s the address that the Bogarin siblings’ beloved grandmother lived at for 67 years, including 30 years of regular Sunday visits from her family. A former dress designer, Anette Ontell’s outsized personality was associated entirely with the house and when she died in 2011, her grandchildren find themselves dealing with what is effectively a haunted house, room after room of accumulated accumulated memories and the accumulated detritus of life. Or maybe the house is a time machine, transporting Elan and Jonathan through the decades of their experiences with their grandmother, as well as time predating them and marked by yellowed tax returns, expired canned goods and ornate, spreading patches of mold and piles of newspaper clippings.
The filmmakers are experiencing grief, but not of the “wailing and garment-rendering” type and, after a conversation with an oddball funeral home director, they give themselves 11 months to make their grandmother tangible again while her soul is still lingering in the house. As grandchildren, their activity takes on a number of shadings and as filmmakers Bogarins bring in experts to help with the unlikely forms of processing.
Archeologist Jan Gadeyne talks them through the idea of house-clearing as excavation, going through the layers of history and trying to understand the woman their grandmother was by the things she left behind. An old Nikon camera lens becomes a portal to the past as the Bogarins make lovely tableaus of similar objects, including the dozens of old radios their grandfather purchased, the dozens of used toothbrushes their grandmother inexplicably saved, the Band-Aid boxes containing coins (and the one box containing Band-Aids). “The objects are no longer for use. They’re for telling stories,” one says, before the siblings dress up in full archeologist gear, a fit of whimsy that leaves their mother sputtering in uncontrollable laughter.
The director of the Rockefeller Archive appears to explain the importance of preserving records of the famous and powerful for posterity, but also to emphasize that he considers the archive he keeps of his own family to be just as important. 306 Hollywood is invested in the idea that Big History and Little History can be valued equally, and it’s not a coincidence how much the Bogarins use miniatures of their grandmother’s house to illustrate scale. Speaking of scale, physicist Alan Lightman is there to explain nothing less than the conservation of mass across the universe and how molecules and memory are tied, or something like that.
Best of all, a “fashion conservator” comes in to examine the countless dresses grandma made over the years, duplicates of nearly every fancy gown she constructed for a client, assembled on her own time and from excess fabric. She’s able to analyze seams frayed from constant wearing, sweat stains and other signs of the life lived in the dresses. This opens the door for a full-fledged fashion show, perhaps my favorite of the directors’ more outlandish gestures.
Like the mother laughing at Elan and Jonathan’s archeology outfits — “You’re both fucking crazy!” are her exact words — a lot of your reaction to 306 Hollywood depends on how far you’re willing to tolerate the filmmakers or their leaps of fancy. My patience definitely wasn’t limitless. Jonathan flashes back a couple times to his studies in Rome for reasons best described as, “I want to go visit Rome.” And after using that Nikon lens as a portal, did I really need the directors dragging a giant telescope around the house as another metaphorical time machine? No, I did not.
For a more grounded look at grandma, Elan had been interviewing her on video once a year for 10 years. This, too, becomes a treatise on the nature of memory as Elan manipulates the video with extreme postproduction zooms and laments the epic loss of a single damaged video. A long, revealing interview in which Elan and her mother goad grandma into trying on a 50-year-old dress is uncomfortable, emotionally exposed and strangely beautiful. It’s straightforward and unedited and yet lands more powerfully than the more stunt-y blending of reenactments with audio from an old tape from 1972.
In the end, 306 Hollywood has a plot no more complicated than “Cleaning out grandma’s house” and a theme no more complicated than “We miss grandma.” But whether everything works or not, it points to a pair of young directors willing to try almost anything in a storytelling toolbox to a woman they loved on the same level as the instantly known figures also toasted at Sundance this winter. I admire that.
Directors: Elan & Jonathan Bogarin
Producers: Elan & Jonathan Bogarin, Judit Stalter
Executive producers: Paula Froehle, Steve Cohen, Ken Pelletier, Laurie David, Regina K. Scully, Geralyn Dreyfous, Kevin Iwashina, Abby Lynn Kang Davis
Editor: Nyneve Laura Minnear
Composer: Troy Herion
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (NEXT)
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