The Institute -Blurring Art, Myth and Reality

The Institute (2012) -Directed by Spencer McCall

The Institute is another entry in that emerging genre that lies on the borderland between documentary and mocumentary. In the tradition of fascinating yet frustrating docs such as Catfish and Exit Through the Gift Shop, The Institute relays a story that obviously has some elements of truth, yet it’s impossible to determine how much of it was re-enacted or even fabricated for the film.

In this case, the subject itself is so nebulous and deliberately confounding that separating fantasy (or, in this case, a game) from reality is a futile enterprise. Yet, that very ontological quandary could very well be the whole point of The Institute -as well as the game upon which it is based.

The Institute is about a city-wide role playing game/social experiment/art project that was (presumably) carried out in San Francisco between 2008 and 2011. It involved a cult-like organization called The Jejune Institute, presided over (allegedly) by a Scientology-like leader. Participants were drawn in after seeing cryptic flyers around the city. Those who followed up were led to a building where they watched a video explaining the Jejune Institute’s vague but noble objectives. Participants were assured, for example, that their view of the world would be utterly transformed. Even more grandiose claims were made, as the Institute allegedly had possession of inventions and formulae that would solve all of humanity’s problems.

Those participants who chose to continue (we can assume that there were many dropouts) were drawn into an increasingly complex and murky scenario where the line between game and reality were collapsed. To make matters even trickier, viewers of the film have another layer of ambiguity to decipher -reality/game/film.

At first, it seems fairly straightforward that the film is simply documenting an extremely ambitious art project. Interviews with the game’s creators, such as Jeff Hull, indicate that it was a long term, open-ended and extremely creative project that encompassed multiple locations, many players and several overlapping plots.

Yet by the middle of the film, viewers will no doubt begin to wonder how much of this really happened as reported. For one thing, this game would have required substantial funding. For another, certain scenes and incidents seem to have been filmed during the time of the game, long before the movie was made. Does this indicate that the documentary was, from the start, a key aspect of the project? Or that some of these scenes were filmed for the movie and were re-enactments or utter fabrications? It’s impossible to say.

One of the bizarre yet interesting plot lines of the game involved making players immediately distrust the very Jejune Institute that had supposedly recruited them into the game. The Institute’s leader was labeled a fraud, someone who had betrayed the cause of “divine nonchalance.” The latter is revealed as the mystical quality that was, once again I must insert the word allegedly, discovered by a mysterious teenager named Eva who disappeared shortly after revealing her discoveries. Eva’s father was said to have been the inventor of some of the Institute’s inventions.

Divine Nonchalance, as the term implies, can be understood to mean going through life in a way that’s open to endless possibilities. It could also be compared to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei, or acting without effort. One image connected to the concept in the film is the tarot card, The Fool -the character who fearlessly stands at the edge of a precipice.

It’s almost impossible to describe the “plot” of The Institute without getting mired in uncertainty and confusion. What’s interesting is that, if you’re open to it, it can motivate you to ask some very basic questions, such as “what is reality?” Parts of it reminded me of Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus Trilogy, a cult classic that involved (among many other things) warring secret societies, where you never knew exactly who the good guys and bad guys were. Wilson was also part of a movement/pseudo religion called Discordianism, which certainly could have been an influence here as well.

Those who are left with questions after watching The Institute might Google some of the people and terms from the film, such as Jejune Institute and Eva Lucien (Eva-Lucien -get it?). In fact, the Journals of Eva Lucien are available for sale online. Yet such a casual search will not prove whether these entries and characters preceded the film.

The Institute will fascinate some, bore/confuse/confound others and be of mild interest to still others. If you like to ponder the borders between fiction and fact and suspect that films such as The Matrix are not mere science fiction, The Institute may be just what you’ve been looking for. It’s available on Netflix streaming right now.

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