Monday, January 21, 2013

Slamdance ’13: The Institute

What’s more fun than global conspiracy?  If you ask former “inductees” of the Jejune Institute, you will likely get radically different responses.  It seems it was all just a game, or was it?  Indeed, truth is deliberately difficult to separate from fiction in Spencer McCall’s ostensive documentary The Institute (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Slamdance Film Festival in Park City.

Once upon a time, 2008 to be exact, some strange leaflets began appearing around San Francisco—strange even by that city’s standards.  The Jejune Institute was trumpeting its revolutionary scientific breakthroughs, like the personal force field, and inviting interested parties to inquire at their local offices.  It turns out the Jejune Institute was headquartered in the heart of San Francisco’s glass-and-steel financial district.  However, the office was nothing like Bank of America’s.  Visitors were directed to a trippily appointed room, where they watched a video greeting from Jejune founder Octavio Coleman, Esq.

After a mind-bending intro to some of the basic Jejune buzz-words, inductees were sent on a scavenger hunt throughout the city, finding secret signs and clues amid the urban environment.  Before long, inductees found themselves aligned with a rival faction seeking to liberate the power of “nonchalance” (the rough Jejune equivalent of The Force) from the megalomaniacal Coleman.  Or something like that.

The thing is, it was all just a game, engineered by a conceptual artist to foster a sense of play in the city.  Yet, as soon as the behind-the-scenes architects come clean, McCall introduces a former player, whose tales of misadventures in the Bay Area sewers have to be part of the mythology.  I mean, seriously.

Reportedly, McCall was brought in to document the final stages of the game and recognized a doc-worthy story when he saw one.  Yet, by the same token, it seems safe to assume he is to some extent, an accomplice to the mythmaking.  There are enough digital tracks to suggest the Jejune Instituters truly were running an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) that some players took very seriously.  As for everything else in the film, maintain a healthy skepticism.

The thing of it is, the Jejune mythology is a great story.  McCall taps into our deep abiding interest in secret histories, conspiracy theories, and urban legends, as well as our fear of cults.  For scores of players, the ARG was like submerging themselves in an Illuminatus! novel.  Yes, some of them might have become obsessed to an unhealthy degree, but they might also be playing the parts.

While openly inviting comparison to Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Institute will appeal to viewers who enjoyed Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.  It might be strange and unreliable, but it is never dull.  Recommended for those who appreciate postmodern fables, The Institute screens again tomorrow morning (1/22) at Treasure Mountain Inn, as part of this year’s Slamdance.