Myke’s first time at Sundance made him miss his grandpa.
Every movie lover has some secret shames, whether they haven’t seen a well-known or much-adored movie or have missed out on some experiences they feel they ought to have had. One of my big ones is that, though I’ve lived in Utah my entire life, I had never been to the Sundance Film Festival until this year.
My experience was far from what I expected, as five of the six films I was fortunate enough to see are documentaries. But far from being dull exposés and marathons of talking head interviews, these documentaries showcased an impressive command of storytelling, and none as interestingly or heart-felt as 306 Hollywood.
The story is told by directors Elan and Jonathan Bogarin, two siblings who grew up visiting their grandmother Annette Ontell every Sunday at her house in New Jersey. When Annette passed away at the age of 93, the Bogarins decided to take the obligatory act of cleaning up their grandma’s house for resale and turn it into an archaeological dig. Over the course of eleven months, Jonathan and Elan sifted through countless boxes of Annette’s belongings and cataloged each one in order to decipher the legacy their grandmother left behind.
Touted as a “magical realism documentary,” 306 Hollywood is beautifully shot and introduces sequences of fantasy and surrealism to the mundane act of organizing personal belongings. As the siblings categorize the stacks of photographs, old dresses, and Grandpa’s letters to the editor, the objects begin to take on a life of their own and even stand in for those who have moved on from this life.
306 Hollywood is mesmerizing with its investigation into the nature of our belongings. Do they define us? Can our lives be deciphered in the clues they hold? Could it be said we exist without them once we’re dead? Having been fascinated by the ruins of ancient Greece and Rome and what they tell us about the civilizations that have gone before us for centuries, 306 Hollywood suggests that the same wondrous thing can be found in suburban America.
I’m convinced of that claim because, thanks to a decade’s worth of personal interviews caught on camera, Grandma Annette is one of my favorite movie “characters” of the year. In a festival in which I saw the stories of social activists, child prodigies, and communities that stood up to greedy corporations, Annette’s story has stayed with me the longest.
No doubt that has a lot to do with the fact that I can identify with Annette’s social and economic standing and want to believe that a normal life can still be seen as extraordinary. Annette convinces me that can happen because she has obviously made a gigantic impact on the lives of her grandchildren, and those cherished stories and experiences have now been passed on to the audience.
Thanks to her cheery demeanor and down-to-earth relatability, audiences are likely to find a grandparent surrogate in Annette. Her stories of making dresses for New York’s richest families and how she carved a life for herself in the house on 306 Hollywood are captivating and, like the objects she leaves behind after her passing, reveal relatable issues about the search for meaning in life.
Through her interviews and actions caught on camera (a lengthy but thought-provoking section has her trying to put on a dress she had made for herself fifty years ago), Annette exorcised fears I myself have about mortality and body image, about being a good parent and loving spouse. She is not a saintly model for the “perfect” life, but to me that is the point. The scramble to be an “extraordinary” person, to be a hero who will be remembered centuries from now, is distressing and has led me to much personal discouragement. Annette tag-teams with my own awesome grandfather to show that meaning in life is in doing what you can where you are.
306 Hollywood could be misconstrued as overly-artistic or pretentious because of the surrealist methods through which the story is told (a show-stopping segment has professional dancers fluttering around the front yard in slow motion wearing dresses Annette made). I would encourage audiences to be patient and give it a chance. Finding the magic in everyday life is a common and necessary element in some of our most beloved films (The Greatest Showman and Lady Bird both showcased it wonderfully just a month ago).
I would recommend 306 Hollywood as a visual document which proves that wonder and meaning can be found in the average person’s home. It’s a beautiful blend of documentary structure with artistic and experimental approaches that investigates the meaning of it all. I can only hope it will see wide release in the near future*.
*If you are interested in any updates about potential wide releases for the film, be sure to like the movie’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/306Hollywood/