Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 27, 2018 10:41 am 
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Home excavation

306 Hollywood is a family chronicle compiled by two adult siblings focused on a house they visited to see their grandmother, Annette Ontell, every Sunday for thirty years. She lived there for 67 years. In the last ten years they began filming her. (They knit archival family footage into their film too, of course.) The filmmakers make every effort to make mundane material interesting. And to a considerable extent they succeed. They try a little too hard, though.

To their regret sister and brother Elan and Jonathan and their mother missed the moment of grandma's death, in a hospital of pneumonia. She had survived all her friends. "Somebody has to be the last on the totem pole," she says in one of many short films of her excerpted here. “I don’t know if it’s called being fortunate, but I’m a survivor." This documentary seeks to be an archaeological excavation of the accumulated contents of the long-occupied house, 306 Hollywood, in Newark, New Jersey, where Annette Ontell lived so long. It is a reveling in the trivial, a project embarked upon a little late, sometimes overly whimsical, sometimes interestingly thoughtful or analytical, never, perhaps, as profound or intriguing as it would like to be.

We begin with the fact that Annette and her husband, an accountant, and their children saved everything, bills, cancelled checks, pennies, clothes, even a roll of toilet paper fifty years old. But this isn't eccentricity. The film based on this material becomes a celebration of the ordinary, the commonplace, the comfy, with moments of magic realism.

The magic realist element comes through in Sherry Anthony's account of the belief that a soul lingers on when someone dies, unwilling to leave, hovering in the home for eleven months. This becomes the motivation of the filmmakers, to keep the house theirs for eleven months of filmed exploration to as a symbolic way to ease their grandmother's spirit away in comfoft. As the film progresses, it follows this timeline of eleven moths as if it were a frantic search that can't quite meet its deadline. This provides structure, a momentary stay against confusion, but seems a little silly, honestly.

Early on "portal" appears, so Jonathan, the narrator, tells us: a circular hole in the kitchen, inside it the image of Annette, upside down, saying, "Even the cream cheese on the bagels gives me severe heartburn." Funny, weird, and promising material to start with. Most of all there are the film interviews with their grandmother (between age 83 and age 93). She made custom dresses for rich women, and copied them for herself. This was her bliss, the thing she loved doing. When she speaks, with her Jersey Jewish twang, her statements are a bit rambling and simple, and she sounds a little like Edith Bunker in "All in the Family," to tell the truth. But she is a sweet lady, down to earth and full of life, the more real for being dead.

A visually appealing, if insufficiently exploited, device is a digital rearranging and resizing of objects in the house. To suggest this is an archaeological dig, rooms of the house are shown with ancient columns patched in among the 1950's furniture. And then, rooms appear with objects, a razor, a chair, a cup, blown up to giant size among the normal-sized ones. This is magic realism too, emphasizing, a bit randomly, to be sure, the power of ordinary objects as part of the overwhelming Universe of Things as assembled by this self-confessed "pack rat."

The film also invades and seeks to reshape its humble family subject matter by filtering it through interpolated interviews with academics and professionals. These present their views on death, history, and conservation to place the siblings' humble subject matter in broader context. These include Alan Lightman, an MIT physicist and novelist; Jan Gadyne, an Cornell University archeologist stationed in Rome; Bob Clark, Director of Archives at the Rockefeller Archive Center of Sleepy Hollow, NY; Nicole Bloomfield, a fashion and textile conservator in New York;, Rita Fioravanti, director of Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome; and Sherry Anthony, a funeral director. All these help the siblings evaluate their grandmother, and their task, through the filter of other disciplnes. When they visit the archivist of the Rockefeller house, Bob Clark confirms that even the lowliest of us counts, and is a figment of history. It's just that preserving our remains is much less well funded.

Another approach comes when the siblings come upon a little aural portal into the family past: an audio tape made by their mother of voices in the house when she, Annette, her husband, and her ill-fated brother-in-law were all there, bickering and opining. They engage professional actors to voice these lines, acting them out - yet another way of bringing the family past momentarily back to life. These brief dramatic scenes supplement the many clips of their filming of their grandmother, age 83 to 93.

All of these formats, or platforms, strive to recreate the past and grandma's life cinematically. They don't do what a novel, play, or poem would do and they lack real dramatic moments. None of them convince us that Annette lived an interesting life, and have no drama, no tragedy, only a hint of comedy. They seem more than anything an exercise, a makeshift homage its subject would be unlikely to appreciate - like the methodical arranging by the siblings of hundreds of objects, from chairs to false teeth to old clothes, around the house to photograph them in quaint folkloric patterns. More successful, if still extraneous, are the sequences of women modeling Annette's fashions - the copies she kept for herself. In these, the hired ladies, in full makup, dance around in front of the house. More magic realism.

Funny, crazy, realistic, affectionate, at times a little at a loss and often too self conscious but always methodical and patient, this film weaves its way along with its tangible material woven from lives close to home. Jonathan Bogarín works in some personal information - glimpses of his marriage in Japan; of his baby daughter trying to walk; and repeatedly to the time time he spent studying in Rome. He goes back to Rome, and talks to a the retired librarian of a great antique library. She explains how its first director labored forty years and only reached the letter L.

Forty years and not halfway through? Yes, and the siblings face a similar impossibility in their grandmother's small, but cluttered house: human life is ineffable, and cannot be measured or divided. And they insult Annette too, forcing her to try on old dresses they now are too small, in her underwear, as an old lady, on camera. The shame is theirs, not hers. And the "pontificating about the nature of memory and archives," as Angelo Muredda calls it in his Film Freak Central review, never deepens our understanding of the lives and events under consideration. Nor does this seem "a new kind of documentary," as some have claimed. Every home-made documentary tries to be a "new kind" nowadays. The ones that count are those that have deep emotional authenticity and keen observation, like Nicolas Philibert's profound study of a primary school teacher, To Be and to Have, or Nathanial Kahn's search for his famous but remote father, My Architect. Not a moment in those two films seems unnecessary or unfelt. In contrast 306 Hollywood's elaborate mediating approaches suggest the filmmakers feared their material - their grandmother's humble life - wasn't interesting enough without a lot of gussying up.

306 Hollywood, which debuted at Sundance Jan. 2018, in four other festivals, Cleveland, Sarasota, Montclair and Hot Docs. Theatrical release begins 28 Sept. 2018 (Quad Cinema NYC). ( It opens 5 Oct. 2018 in Northern California (Vogue Theatre , San Francisco; Rialto Elmwood, Berkeley; Rialto, Sebastopol.) Metascore 71%.

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