NEW YORK — Elan and Jonathan Bogarín’s grandmother Annette more than proved correct the old adage “you can’t take it with you.”
When she died, at the age of 93, the self-described “packrat” left her small house at 306 Hollywood Avenue in Hillside, New Jersey stuffed with six decades’ worth of chazerai (junk). As part of their grieving process (or perhaps to delay it) the grandkids turn the home into a kind of archeological dig to re-examine the woman they lost.
“306 Hollywood” is, by its very nature, something of a shaggy dog story. Luckily, the Bogaríns have two things working in their favor. Both come from a visual arts background, so the “classifications” of what they find as they plunder the closets and basement are laid out in a vibrant and unexpected manner. The dentures and old toothbrushes (why did she save so many?) form a colorful tableaux.
Additionally, for 10 years Elan had been videotaping interviews with her grandmother, and from this enormous trove of material one can extract words of wisdom, oftentimes heavily salted with Yiddish, on nearly every subject.
And Annette truly was wise. Born to Polish and Belorussian Jewish immigrants in Newark, she went to work at an early age as a seamstress, in time becoming a fashion designer to some wealthy and influential clients. Her late husband was an accountant. Her son had mental health issues and died in his 40s. Her daughter (the filmmakers’ good-humored mother) moved to Manhattan, married a Venezuelan, divorced him and made sure her kids saw their grandma in Jersey every Sunday for most of their lives.
Though not exactly pleased about getting older, Annette reflects on her past in a satisfied manner. Also, all her contemporaries are dead (“someone has to be last!”) so she doesn’t exactly fear the reaper.
Something of a ticking clock frames the film: they will sell the house in 11 months, which just so happens to be the amount of time that a soul will linger in their host body’s domicile, says a spiritual advisor.
The Bogaríns consult with a number of experts, and these interviews are sprinkled throughout their continued excavations. They meet with an archivist for the Rockefeller family (why not take cues from the experts on what to save?) and a scientist who explains, as best as he can, about the breakdown and displacement of cells. What, exactly, is it that makes up Grandma? Is it her body? Her ideas? Her stuff?
These conversations juxtaposed with images of Annette’s personal effects get a little overly choreographed at times (the cutesy shadow of Wes Anderson is felt a great deal in this film) but for every moment that feels overdone there are three moments that are genuinely touching. Then comes the coup-de-grâce.
They discover an old audio cassette. On it, arguments, chit-chat, kitchen table worries from years gone by. Actors in period dress re-enact these scenes, lip-syncing to the “field recordings.” There’s nothing earth-shattering on this tape, but by this time we’ve heard enough conversation about the old days that to actually “see” it, even though it is a pantomime, is exhilarating. This wasn’t my family (I hadn’t heard of them 90 minutes earlier!) but I had tears in my eyes just watching them pick at food or wash-up at a sink while talking such mundane topics like office politics.
Neither of my two Jewish grandmothers were that similar to Annette. Then again, I didn’t know them as an adult. But what’s striking about “306 Hollywood” is its tactile, lived-in quality.
The lengthiest sequence in the film in an uninterrupted shot from Elan’s interviews, in which Annette (after having her arm twisted) tries to fit into some of the dresses she made in the 1950s. She strips down to her bra and underwear (she isn’t a shy woman!) and, well, the attempt doesn’t go too well, but the three generations of women giggle and have a good time. (I suspect that Jonathan wasn’t in the room while they were filming this one.)
It’s a pretty good sample of the movie in micro. I don’t think many will come away from this movie getting punched in the face by any monumental Truth. (Although if one does, more power to ya!)
People live, people love, people die. What’s important, most will agree, is how we remember someone. For two young filmmakers to devote their creativity and their time rummaging through their grandmother’s past is, I think, enough of a testimony to this family’s good qualities.