By Don Simpson | October 7, 2013
Director: Spencer McCall
Before you read much farther, you should know that Spencer McCall’s The Institute is one of those films that is best experienced with no prior knowledge of its subject. Just as the layers of [un]reality are blurred beyond recognition within the subject itself, it is never clear exactly what role The Institute is playing. By way of its perplexing perspective(s), The Institute cleverly challenges the audience to reconsider their own conclusions about the onscreen events. Concurrently, The Institute examines the complex human relationship with fantasy. As we contemplate the motives and desires of the interviewees, we are motivated to review our own perceptions of truth and fiction.
For all the “dark horses with the spirit to look up and see, a recondite family awaits” at the Jejune Institute. This oblique international organization with a chapter based in San Francisco promotes a new age-y philosophy of nonchalance. Approximately 10,000 people voluntarily enlisted in this cult-like collective after watching a mysterious video in a strange induction room located in a nondescript office suite in the San Francisco Financial District. As it turns out, they were becoming pawns in an elaborate art project. Playing with the conventions of role playing games and conspiracy theories, the game drops its players down a rabbit hole of disorienting proportions leading to a seemingly endless string of strange discoveries and consequences.
The Institute follows several participants on their adventures across the urban playground of San Francisco, interjecting interviews with past participants as well as the manipulative masterminds behind this surreal fantasy world. McCall’s intentions are never completely clear, as The Institute seems to serve as a critique of Jejune Institute while simultaneously playing like a promotional video for its grand creators. The haphazard — or, rather, nonchalant — narrative structure makes things even more confusing, as several important reveals are made at such awkward points in the film that it is difficult to take them seriously. Whether or not this is all part of a manipulative ruse, only McCall will ever know. As we learn from The Institute, it requires a certain amount of lunacy to take certain leaps in belief — and this relates to purveyors of the fantasy genre, gamers and role-players, members of cults, conspiracy theorists and even documentary film audiences.