History Told is History Saved

Grand Rapids is getting a nine-screen movie theater when Studio Park opens in 2019, but the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts has provided a movie theater downtown for decades. I haven’t been to as many movies at the UICA as I think I should have while living in the city. I’ve had a crazy schedule this fall and haven’t been able to attend a film at an independent theater until the end of the semester, but that ended up being for the best because I saw a film I personally connect with and one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen. I saw 306 Hollywood at the UICA’s Movie Theater, anew documentary made by brother and sister team Elan and Jonathan Bogarin, on December 2nd, 2018. This is a very different and original film. It tells a magical story about their grandmother Annette Ontell and the home she made over sixty-seven years. The film is about more than Annette and her house though; it’s about life, mortality, family, and how everyday people are remembered after they’re gone.

            306 Hollywood, the street address of their grandmother’s house in Hillsdale, New Jersey, premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is picked up for distribution. It got a late September release and was playing at UICA’s Movie Theater in their general programming of acclaimed independent films. The film shows the Bogarin family reacting to the death of Annette in 2011 and what they go through as they deal with her house. They filmed interviews with their grandmother, beginning in 2001, for a decade from the age of 83 until she was 93. After her passing, the Bogarin’s begin going through the house and realize the scope of things in the house and needed a process for organizing everything. During an early effort to sell the house, the siblings decide to keep the house at the last moment. For a year they would turn the house in an archaeological dig, catalog everything, and hopefully discover a new and truly real Annette they never knew. Old homes – like the Bogarin’s and my own – are places spirits and the memories of those we’ve lost live on, in unnoticeable and minuscule ways, and this surreal film captures that idea well.

Photo by El Tigre Productions – http://www.eltigreproductions.com/306-hollywood/ 

My wife and I have gone through a similar situation in our lives when we moved into her grandparent’s house after her grandmother passed, a family home for over fifty years, was full of stuff from a distant past. We’ve been living in the house for the better part of 4 years and went through similar experiences and emotions the Bogarin’s go through in the film: going through decades worth of papers, appliances, clothes, photographs,and memories. The siblings ask one another ‘what are we doing?’ and ‘why are we doing this?’ early in the film and they both answer ‘I don’t know’ with a hint of desperation and worry in their words, a feeling I know well. We had similar experiences with our family home: trying to figure out what to get rid of, what to sell,what to give away, and what to keep, while respecting those who made it. Every room and each floor of our little ranch filled was with family and home goods,and a basement filled with dishes, furniture, and other items from a long-gone cabin. We truly are blessed, privileged, and grateful for our home, but it was a huge weight and responsibility for us, for a time, in preserving the past while creating a home for the future.

In 306 Hollywood, the Bogarin siblings quickly realize they need assistant with this process and decide to preserve their grandmother’s memory with a film. They utilize long and slow panning shots when framing the house and its rooms, creating a feeling that the house is alive. The film is filmed using very simple but effective framing technique, utilizing a Kubrickian or symmetrical shot to capture this family’s journey of digging through their grandmother’s home. Using still shots and slow panning shots mainly, the Bogarin’s begin integrating magical-realism into the film. They use a toy house that has the same details as the house and its room creates an aura of magic and wonder around Annette’s home, and reenactments are filmed in the house with actors and recorded audio of the family brings a uniqueness and original style to the documentary.

Annette was a fashion designer and made dresses for upper-class women in nearby New York City for decades, always making two of her favorites. Her grandchildren showcase these dresses and her life work in a beautifully filmed dance sequence, where six women portray Annette at various times of her life, wearing a dress she made by doing a choreographed and synchronized dance in the front yard. A fashion conservator is brought in to analyze and help catalog her dresses, and truly shows the scope of Annette’s talents. The use of magical-realism techniques, an abstract and ambiguous narrative,and dedicated narrators, make for a unique and timely film I believe everyone should experience.

            I attended a noon showing on a Saturday at the UICA, and when I walked in it felt like a ghost town because the building was empty. I was one of only three people at the screening and building. We were outnumbered by the weekend staff, who very nice and hospitable, but acted as if this was how busy weekends were. I haven’t been to a film at the UICA in years. The last was a documentary about the disco-punk band LCD Soundsystem, a sold-out, but ‘one-night only’, event, and is the only movie I’ve attended at the UICA with any audience whatsoever. I understand the film is tiny and still unknown, and most theaters don’t draw large crowds in the afternoon,but the environment didn’t add anything to my experience and didn’t make me want to return anytime soon. The building is cold and uninviting when empty and silent. This doesn’t seem good for the gallery and its place within Grand Rapids. I’d love to write about the audience’s reaction, but as the credits rolled on 306 Hollywood, the young couple sitting six rows in front me got up and hurried out of the theater and the gallery. I like experiencing films with other people in an audience, which there was none, but I hope that changes in future visits.

I love small, independent theaters –the UICA Movie Theater and its lobby holds a cozy two-hundred – but the fact is an empty building and theater don’t inspire me to put forth the effort to comeback and attend more movies there. A reason for my frustration may be because the old UICA and its movie theater – on Sheldon Ave just around the corner – was more inviting the few times I went when compared to the new space. I believe attendance and the relevance of the UICA has fallen and diminished throughout the seven years since its move, a disheartening prospect for our art, film, and music scenes in Grand Rapids. This may be my own observation, but the cold and grey aesthetic of the UICA isn’t an inviting environment or a space that draws me in.

Even though my experience wasn’t very memorable, the film 306 Hollywood was, and I highly recommend going to the UICA and either attending a film, an exhibit, or an event. Independent artists need independent spaces to showcase their art and talents, and spaces like the UICA have disappeared or become less independent across the country. I may criticize the institute, but it’s because I want it to succeed and see the UICA become what I believe it could be for our city, the beating heart and a home for artists and their art and a place for future generations to be inspired.

306 Hollywood is an original and entertaining film, and one of 2018’s best. The life of Annette Ontell is celebrated and commemorated by her grandchildren Elan and Jonathan Bogarin,who do good by their grandmother and make a damn good film. This may be a solo outing in film making for them, but it could be an innovative and inspiring debut in their new career.

  • Dan Climie

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