'306 Hollywood' Magically Upgrades a Life Less Extraordinary

Elan and Jonathan Bogarin make a marvelous debut with this fanciful yet unfeigned portrait of their grandmother.

306 HOLLYWOOD image 6 Annette Ontell
El Tigre Productions

Despite its name, 306 Hollywood has nothing to do with the entertainment industry. In fact, its subject is about as far removed from Hollywood as she can be. The documentary is focused on an average woman who lived in a suburb of Newark, New Jersey. She wasn’t famous, and to anyone but her family and friends, her life wasn’t even remotely extraordinary. But two of the people to whom she mattered most, her grandchildren, have turned her into a figure worthy of our interest.

Annette Ontell passed away in 2011. Before her death, she participated in 10 years worth of interviews conducted by her granddaughter, Elan Bogarin, who’d started the personal project while in film school. These videos now provide us with a look at Ontell’s bodily existence, while her life, her legacy, and who she was in full come through in an exploration of her home (located at 306 Hollywood Avenue) and the objects within. Elan and her brother, Jonathan Bogarin, describe the project of discovery as a kind of archaeological dig.

The sibling filmmakers don’t uncover any big revelations about their grandmother. No secret affair, no brush with celebrity, no ancestral virtue, not even any hidden hobbies. Elan and Jonathan find the normal items associated with and left behind by a person: her shoes, her furniture, her datebooks, her overabundance of toothbrushes and vacuum cleaners, some decades-old canned gefilte fish. She was a fashion designer in the 1950s, and she made herself versions of the dresses she created for others; those are all pieces of her life, as well.

What makes 306 Hollywood more than the typical documentary made about a filmmakers’ family members is its whimsical magical-realist style. Ontell’s things are laid out in portraits that are reminiscent of the stationary shots of fixed items in a Wes Anderson movie. There are ways the Bogarins represent ghosts, time travel, and portals into the past that also remind me of the work of Michel Gondry and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. Ther are dollhouse recreations of Ontell’s home that follow a trend this year also seen in Hereditary and Sharp Objects. Yet all of these are still admittedly rather forced comparisons. The documentary is not easy to describe or relate to anything else. Especially any other nonfiction feature.

306 Hollywood isn’t just a work of style over substance, either. Ontell doesn’t become an extraordinary subject just by being a prop in her own movie. Despite being seven years dead, she’s actually the most real-feeling thing in the film, which involves fantastical moments where trains and forests run through the house and pinup girls perform a dreamlike dance of domesticity on the lawn, and sequences where audio recordings of Ontell are paired with dramatized reenactments. Through it all, the doc keeps going back to those arranged yet candid interviews for a sincere sit down with the genuine article.

And the film does have something to say, in addition to showing the artifacts of Ontell’s existence. For a bit, the Bogarins take a little detour to compare 306 Hollywood to 15 Dayton, which is the address of the Rockefeller Archive Center, also known as “Hillcrest,” one of the former residences found on the John D. Rockefeller Estate in Westchester, New York. Within this stately mansion is a re-creation of and relocation of objects from a powder room from the Manhattan apartment of one of John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s wives. Why should her homes and possessions be kept pristine for perpetuity but not Ontell’s? Because life’s winners not only write history but their things are also preserved as history, an archivist reminds us.

Of course, archaeological digs can unearth the ordinary and make the common items of anybodies within a culture into historically important figures, as well, even if still just broadly and anonymously. That’s sort of what the Bogarins are doing with their grandmother specifically and this film project, which blurs the purposes of an exhibit found in a history museum and that of an art museum. Their documentary presents both an excavation and an installation.

It’s also a revelation of two extraordinary new documentarians, this their feature directorial debut, who are suddenly thrust into significance with 306 Hollywood. More than just a film, though, the Bogarins have produced something that viewers are sure to become envious with. Not just because we might wish to make a work of art this personal yet playful but also be a part of one. How many of us would not love to be the subject of a doc like this when we die? This is much better than just receiving an obituary and a headstone marking our existence.

For her career, Ontell made things for others, which she replicated for herself for personal use. I wonder how much the Bogarins would charge to turn their idea for a personal project into a service for others. I’m only partly kidding. After all, part of the message of 306 Hollywood seems to be that we’re all deserving of such a loving, fanciful. cataloged archive and portrait.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.