“Where is it?” physicist and novelist Alan Lightman asks deep into the inventive, charming, and sometimes precious NEXT documentary 306 Hollywood. It’s the central question of this first feature film directed by brother and sister team Elan and Jonathan Bogarín. Their answer to Lightman’s question—which refers to the consciousness of the deceased—begins with the titular address, that of their grandmother Annette Ontell’s home in New Jersey, in which she lived for 71 years, the last 16 on her own, before her death in 2011. While the directors admit that the house is “nothing special,” their weekly visits as kids with their mother, who moved to New York City in 1970, established the place as a kind of wonderland, “her world,” which serves as a foundation for the powerful connections between the material and the ineffable explored in the film.
In fact, the simple house—first seen as a model, a representation of Annette, a container for her—is made special as it grows into a character, a culture, clad in frills and fringe, plastic, polyester, vinyl, and leather—all the clutteredness of its surfaces creating a persistent visual of history, depth, and variety the directors can only gloss in their voiceover. “I’m a rat trap,” Annette says in one of her grandchildren’s videos (the Bogaríns began taping interviews with her in 2001), with typically self-deprecating amusement, long after we’ve begun to think of the word she’s searching for.
But Annette was not so much a hoarder as an accumulator, a deep civilization unto herself, and the items the Bogaríns’ mother wants to throw away, can’t bear to sift through, become the subject of an elaborate and visually stunning set of “catalogs” the siblings develop (with input and context provided by a mystical funeral director, the Rockefeller family archivist, and a fashion conservator) in an effort to better understand who their grandmother was, to try to discern links between the layers of clothes, books, calendars, knick knacks, vacuum cleaners, cameras, and moldy bread.
It’s hard to say whether the Bogaríns get terribly far in this search, as it seems we mostly learn what the family already knows and what Annette’s said in response to the siblings’ questions. In the 50s and 60s she worked as a fashion designer, making dresses for high class ladies in Manhattan, then making the same dresses for herself with the leftover material. But Annette was not much of a party girl. She thought of herself as unremarkable, “an ordinary-looking person.” “I tried,” she says, when asked if she thinks her life has been successful, and she seems satisfied. Her husband, Herman, was an accountant who’d wanted to be a musician, and her son, David, suffered a schizophrenic breakdown as a teenager and eventually died young, though we never find out how. Annette, in the videos, shows little regret about the isolation of her last years. Rather she gamely plays along, mostly amused, though sometimes appearing confused by, or maybe nervous about, her grandchildren’s requests.
Even the discovery of old audio recordings made by their mother of random conversations between her and Annette, some including David, are not all that revealing, though they open up a new dimension in the siblings’ archaeological method, introducing visuals of the recorded conversations performed by lip-syncing actors.
What’s compelling throughout here is the enactment of memory, its visualization, and the construction of a personal anthropology, which is at its best, or most imaginative, in its inventive tableaus, its use of models and light, and in a dance number considering the younger, self-possessed, and confident selves represented by Annette’s fancy dresses. Meanwhile, things fall a little flat with the overconstructed idea of a telescope that looks back into the past.
Regardless, 306 Hollywood is a thoughtful and entertaining documentary, enlivening somber questions about death and time and what remains with humor and sincere affection as well as substantial visual achievement.
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