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306 Hollywood feels like a whole new way of tackling documentaries

This ‘magical-realist doc’ pushes subjectivity into poetry, with a Wes Anderson spin

Courtesy El Tigre Productions

Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review comes from the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

When filmmakers turn their cameras on themselves and their families, the results are rarely as fascinating to the viewers as they are to the participants. Family documentaries come with a lot of emotional baggage that the audience doesn’t get to share, and while it’s possible to get a broad overview of a family’s dynamics, the full background and context is always going to elude outsiders. There are exceptions to the rule, like Sarah Polley’s unfolding-mystery doc Stories We Tell, or Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s animated personal history Persepolis. But too many “me and my family” docs mistake personal interest for public interest.

That’s why Elan and Jonathan Bogarin’s 306 Hollywood is so startling. It’s another self-absorbed exploration of family, focused entirely on the filmmakers’ emotions around their grandmother’s life and death, and the problem of having to dispose of her belongings. But the siblings address their family through a Wes Anderson lens, with a tone so playful and visually poetic that it drops into surrealism. It feels like a fresh new approach to an old genre — a willingness to not just embrace the subjectivity of family documentaries, but to charge into it full-bore.

Courtesy El Tigre Productions

What’s the genre?

The Bogarins describe 306 Hollywood as a “magical realist documentary,” a genre they made up to describe how they tell a real-life story through whimsical constructed images and offbeat scenarios. It’s the kind of simultaneously personal but playful storytelling seen in docs like Meet The Patels, but taken to a far quirkier and more experimental degree.

What’s it about?

The Bogarins’ grandmother, Annette Ontell, died in 2011 after living in the same little white house in Hillside, New Jersey for 71 years. Ontell was a fashion designer, and her house is full of old dresses she made — sometimes as duplicates of the dresses she made for high-powered clients like the Rockefeller family. It’s also full of clutter, from moldy books to ancient knickknacks to endless piles of old newspaper clippings and tax returns. After her death, Elan, Jonathan, and their mother set out to clean and sell the house, but they find the process emotionally difficult, and the process quickly stalls.

So the siblings start calling themselves archeologists, addressing their grandmother’s property as a series of discoveries to unearth and analyze. They craft Wes Anderson-esque layouts of her tools and toiletries, organizing everything by purpose or color, into photo-ready layouts. They bring in a fashion conservator and a physicist to talk about the current state of Ontell’s dresses and her component atoms. They interrogate the objects in her life, and the feelings they have around them, as if they’re trying to push away their emotions and take a clinical approach to living without Ontell.

Courtesy El Tigre Productions

What’s it really about?

It’s really about those emotions, and the need to process them, sometimes in bizarre and colorful ways. At one point, the Bogarins gather a group of dancers to cavort about on the lawn of the 306 Hollywood house, first wearing Ontell’s dresses, then stripping them off and dancing in 1940s-style girdles instead. It’s unclear how this interpretive dance relates back to Ontell, apart from the family’s urge to fetishize her creations. But it’s clear that they’re creating these kinds of confrontational, startling images out of a sense of emotion that needs to be expressed.

Is it good?

Audiences who find Wes Anderson unbearably twee and precious have no business watching 306 Hollywood, which mimics his visual precision, his obsession with order and presentation, and his peppy, intense, recursive soundtracks. (Troy Herion’s bouncy soundtrack isn’t close enough to Alexandre Desplat’s score for Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel to seem plagiaristic, but it does feel like a blood relation.) But Anderson has plenty of fans who embrace his idiosyncratic way of doing things, and those fans will find a certain kinship in this film.

Certainly 306 Hollywood is filled with startling images. Trying to convey how much Ontell’s little white house dominated her life, the filmmakers commission an immaculate dollhouse version of it, and they shoot footage of the dollhouse in public places, using it to represent her former presence and current absence. They place her cameras in the dollhouse, where their outsized proportions make them dominate the tiny rooms. After finding an audiotape of Ontell’s conversations with family members — including a fight with her husband — they stage recreations of the scenes with actors, who mouth the words while the original audio plays. Not all these experiments bring across the kind of specific emotional impact the siblings seem to be looking for. But while the images sometimes seem distanced from the theme, and sometimes just odd for the sake of oddity, they’re still vivid and striking. Certainly they’re more memorable than the usual “anguished talking into a camera” sequences that tend to dominate family-exploration documentaries.

Courtesy El Tigre Productions

And the Bogarins pepper these experiments with footage of Ontell herself, talking about everything from the importance of vaginal cleanliness to her complete lack of regret about being done with sex. The filmmakers have extensive footage of Ontell, mostly consisting of interviews they shot in her home, over a 10-year period starting when she was 83 years old. She’s an outspoken, funny, slightly dotty woman who’s endlessly game when it comes to answering personal questions about death or her marriage. Her frankness and simplicity give the film a welcome dose of earthy humor to counteract all the abstract visual poetry and pastel imagery.

It also puts a specific, physical face at the center of the story, which helps ground the film. Above all, her clearly expressed satisfaction with her choices feels deeply satisfying. “My life has been a success,” she says at one point. “I achieved a good credit line, paid my bills on time, I had a good reputation.” Next to the film’s weirder flights of visual fancy, Ontell’s entirely confident take on her own small ambitions is pretty delightful.

Courtesy El Tigre Productions

306 Hollywood’s major problem is that it feels unfocused, more a grab bag of loosely related ideas and pleasant footage than a directed attempt to express a thesis. No one deals with grief in the same way, and the Bogarins are clearly passing through different phases of their mourning over the course of the film’s yearlong roundup of visual and tonal experiments. The audience doesn’t exactly get to share that process, so much as they get to intuit it from the variety of material they see onscreen. Sometimes the filmmakers talk directly about their relatable dilemmas, like weighing their nostalgia against their practicality as they try to decide which of their grandmother’s things to keep, and which to throw away.

But for a fair bit of the film, they send other people (an archivist, an archeologist, and so forth) out in their place, to express ideas that circle fruitlessly around the idea of the stuff we all accumulate in our lives. As an elegy to a life, it’s artful as well as personal. But just as the Bogarins keep put off cleaning out their grandmother’s house, they also keep putting off directly confronting their pain. Sometimes 306 Hollywood feels like an incredibly pretty act of extended onscreen procrastination and deflection.

What should it be rated?

This is a pretty G-rated doc. The youngest viewers might get a few awkward giggles at the short, frank sex talk, and boggle at a scene where Ontell allows herself to be talked into stripping down to her underwear to try on some of her old dresses, but there’s nothing prurient about the film.

How can I actually watch it?

306 Hollywood is currently seeking distribution.