Annette Ontell wasn’t important. The New Jersey housewife met her husband Herman at 15, bought a small, white home in Newark, on 306 Hollywood Ave., and stayed put for 67 years. There, at the address that lends this experimental documentary its name, she amassed heaps of clutter and raised two kids, one of whom gave her two grandkids, co-directors Elan and Jonathan Bogarín. After Annette’s death, the siblings had an idea: Why not study her relics with the detailed attention historians devote to, say, Rome or the Rockefellers? “306 Hollywood” honors the ordinary. Through her mess, Annette blooms into a vivid presence — more so than her living descendants, whose khaki safari outfits and stage-y narration about the passage of time tilt things a bit too twee.
Toothbrush by toothbrush, the Bogaríns catalogue Annette’s possessions. Under their scrutiny, each object is at once mundane and mysterious, like six cans of Band-Aids filled with pennies and 50-year-old toilet paper. To unsentimental eyes, the moldy paper is trash. To people who loved Annette — and the Bogaríns dearly do — it could also be a scroll of papyrus describing the kind of person who kept that roll safe for five decades just in case. When the pair describe how archaeologists use ancient garbage to discover trade routes, they cut to a shot of U.S. Route 22 less than a mile from the house.
The ornate opening font and decorative fairy-tale music announce that we’re entering a world where more is more. The Bogaríns discover that there are dozens of ways to catalogue a life. In one scene, they fill the backyard with several rows of mismatched chairs — the sign of someone who embraced color and chaos? Later, they paper the roof and shingles with their family’s old clothing, plaid jackets and brocade dresses lying lifeless as if to emphasize their owners are absent.
Of course, there are home movies, too. The siblings began filming Annette 10 years before she passed away, and use the camera as an excuse to ask her for things that, over coffee, would simply be rude. Does she miss sex? Is she scared to die? Would she mind taking off her stretch pants to try on an old, slim dress everyone knows won’t fit? Annette answers the verbal questions boldly. When they ask how it feels to be the last of her childhood friends, she says, “I don’t know if it’s called being fortunate, but I’m a survivor.” As for stripping to her skivvies, she’s petrified, more about the confirmation her waistline has doubled than of the recorded footage. “Who would ever want to watch this?” she must have figured. That audiences are, in fact, spying on the nonagenarian in her bra and panties makes us search for a reason why this scene was included, to justify our guilt.
Ultimately, there isn’t one, so the doc turns to experts for context. Textile conservationist Nicole Bloomfield analyzes Annette’s wardrobe for sweat stains and the human whiff of her perfume. “Clothes are the fastest path back in time,” she declares, and thoughts of our own closets nudge us to agree. A physicist describes Annette’s body as scattered atoms that still exist, even if the woman herself doesn’t.
Occasionally, the Bogaríns feign interest in ghosts. Early on, the voiceover describes the siblings walking through the home when suddenly, a woman appears. We see her, too. And it takes a beat before the film reveals that she’s simply a funeral director, introduced with coy misdirection. Another time, Jonathan claims a portal opened up in the kitchen. He means an old camera lens, which when we look through it seems closer to peering through a porthole, or really, a periscope. But it’s hard to begrudge their whimsy, especially when they duplicate Annette’s home in miniature, with tiny boxes of soap and cartoon sketches stuck to the wallpaper.
In a quick montage, they take the dollhouse outside to place Annette’s life in context. As children who visited every Sunday, they couldn’t imagine their grandmother existing anywhere else. But her town had a diner and grocery store. Her world was bigger than they knew. Mostly, they’re interested in how lives get flattened. In memories, a day is reduced to a photograph. In history, a time period is defined by the powerful. And in our present day, an ordinary woman like Annette would be forgotten, no matter how many pennies she hoarded. The Bogaríns’ devotion to keeping her alive is their own form of obsession — and their film succeeds in making us celebrate Annette’s existence.
And yet, cataloging even a single life is an impossible feat, especially for two people still trying to live their own. “306 Hollywood” is best when it gets either very scientifically dry, or reaches beyond its liminal cuteness into ambitious visual poetry, as in a scene where a half-dozen brunette dancers whirl in Annette’s tailor-made clothing, or a closing stretch where actors lip-sync arguments the Bogaríns caught on tape. These moments aren’t made of objects. They’re made of people in motion. And they prove that no collection of junk treasures can ever compare to the real deal.