Directed by: Spencer McCall.
The Institute is a documentary about something called an “Alternate Reality Game”. Players saw flyers hung up on telephone poles around San Francisco (and already you know the type of people the game attracted – people who actually read the flyers put on telephone poles), and then call the number on them. They are given an address of the Jejune Institute in the financial district. When they go to the building, they are directed to a room – the room has TV that gives them instructions, one of them being not to open the drawer in the desk, which obviously means everyone opens the drawer in the desk, which gives them an induction card, and a set of instructions on how to get out of the building and what to do next. Eventually, they will be directed to listen to a radio station, which gives other strange instructions. Players will be sent on a wild goose chase – sometimes through sewers with other gamers they meet. Sometimes, they have to make phone calls from a payphone, and the person on the other end of the line will tell them to dance – at which point, a musician shows up and starts playing music, and eventually, the player will be given something by a man dressed as a Sasquatch, who danced right along with them.
What is the purpose of the game? Even after watching the movie, I couldn’t begin to tell you. The intricate plot of the game involves a feud between the Jeujune Institute and another organization – led by a guru with the improbable name of Octavio Coleman, Esquire. Or maybe, Octavio Coleman was the head of the Jeujune Institute, and the other organization was the evil one. I don’t quite remember – the whole thing gets confusing, with so much new age psychobabble going on – and talk of inventions suppressed, and geniuses in need to rescue. Most of the participants seem to be in on the joke from the beginning – they know it’s all just an elaborate game, and they enjoy playing it. It adds some needed surrealism into their regular lives. Some take it far too seriously, and may even think it’s real. When the game ends, the reaction of the gamers is mixed, with those who are let down by the “secrets”, those who simply shrug their shoulders and move on, and those who view it as a life changing experience.
The movie will probably play better to the type of people who would sign up to play the game in the first place. There is something refreshingly strange about the whole thing, and the film at its best has some wonderfully surreal moments (I imagine David Lynch watching the movie, and swearing at himself for not including dancing sasquatches in Inland Empire). But ultimately, I found watching The Institute an extremely frustrating experience. Director Spencer McCall really wants to string the audience along for the entire running time, just like the creators of the “game” in question did to its participants, albeit for a much shorter time (the game went on for months). If you like being jerked around by a movie like this, or the game sounds like something you would enjoy, than perhaps you’ll like The Institute more than I did. For me though, I would have preferred a more critical look into the game itself – which apparently is part of a larger movement that some have embraced, and some see as dangerous. During the runtime of the game in the movie, some think it all just may be a front for a cult.
When The Institute was over, I didn’t feel like I knew much more about its subject than when the film began – which seeing as I knew nothing about it when the movie began, was problematic for me. You probably could make a good documentary about this strange, strange “game” – but it would require a director with more probing questions and critical insight and less of a need to string the audience along on a quest that ultimately leads nowhere.