Sundance 2018: 306 Hollywood, by David Bax
Elan and Jonathan Bogarin’s 306 Hollywood starts off with a creepy shot of a house in the black of night with amber light coming from the windows while the score’s sinister strings and chimes envelop the image. This nod toward horror is an enticing way to introduce a documentary but, like so many of the threads the Bogarins pick up throughout the movie, it’s dropped before it leads anywhere. 306 Hollywood is an occasionally ambitious, sometimes even profound effort that nevertheless crumbles under the directors’ fixation with gimmickry.
When Elan and Jonathan’s grandmother, Annette Ontell, passed away in 2011, they began the process, along with their mother, of cleaning out her house and getting it ready for sale. But a discussion with a spiritual funeral director gave them an idea: Wait eleven months for Annette’s spirit to be ready to leave. In the meantime, they would treat the site like an archeological dig, trying to piece together a picture of their grandmother and their entire family from artifacts like Band-Aid tins and false teeth. They also have hours of video, interviews the sister and brother had been recording with Annette for ten years. Thus, the late, feisty old woman becomes the star of the movie. She’s both hilariously frank and touchingly vulnerable, a larger than life presence that proves what may be the film’s thesis; that all houses are bigger on the inside.
The Bogarins hopscotch through a number of approaches from home movies to recreations to lo-fi sci-fi; even magical realism–in their excavation, they suddenly “discover” a massive telescope that lets them look into the house’s past in the years before they were born. Some of these tricks are poignant (surprisingly, that telescope conceit really works). Many of them, though, seem like empty gimmickry, like when they place a model of Annette’s house in mundane places like a diner counter or grocery store aisle.
306 Hollywood is at its best when examining memory (what movie isn’t?). Elan and Jonathan are particularly interested in uncovering the way a person exists in the world after they’ve died. It’s less that there’s a different version of Annette for every person who remembers her and more that all of those memories in addition to the material things she left behind come together to form some kind of persistent, non-corporeal entity. The most intriguing way they find to trace Annette’s life is through her clothing. Not only do the trends mark the years but the particular stains and wear reveal much about the individual. This comparison won’t do 306 Hollywood any favors but it put me in mind of the opening sequence of The Magnificent Ambersons, in which the entire history of a town and a family are charted largely through changes in men’s fashion.
But that’s just one bit of a film that’s overstuffed with elements that often seem to be battling for primacy; no matter which one wins, we lose. 306 Hollywood is sometimes maudlin (in a brief reference to President Kennedy, Jonathan opines vapidly, “His story came to an end as all stories do”) and sometimes cutesy (particularly when it comes to the score, which bounces jauntily like the music in a commercial for laundry detergent). Maybe the Bogarins keep pulling new tricks out of their bag to distract us from the creeping suspicion that this is all just exploitation of a dead woman’s private life.