Runs Fri., Oct. 18–Thurs., Oct. 24 at Northwest Film Forum. Not rated. 92 minutes.
If you’ve ever thought, “Man, I need to step away from the computer, get out of the house, and be with actual people,” The Institute is a caution against the new meet-up culture among strangers. It’s both a documentary and a bit of a put-on, delaying key factual points well past the point of good conscience. The film chronicles a street theater/fantasy/role-playing game that encouraged Bay Area participants to resist a malign think-tank organization (something like the Dharma Initiative on Lost) and its charismatic leader.
To us, it’s obvious within minutes that the Jejune Institute is a hoax and its chairman merely an actor; and what director Spencer McCall never clarifies here is whether he’s part of the elaborate ruse, in league with its orchestrators. Rather, what matters to The Institute is how the eager gamers were so readily drawn in, willingly surrendering their disbelief. Here was interactive entertainment that combined treasure hunts, geocaching, and “Who killed Laura Palmer?”–style sleuthing. “I was looking for clues,” says one participant. (Most interviewees, now embarrassed, offer only their first names.) You can see how players got swept up in this engrossing pursuit. There’s a fascination for us, too, as they decipher an urban code, locating Easter eggs in the city’s hidden, enchanted fabric. Prompted by pay-phone calls and paper flyers, they trace hieroglyphics and invented folklore, probe the storm sewers with GPS units in hand, even break into spontaneous sidewalk dancing with a costumed Sasquatch.
That hilarious latter episode was set up for McCall’s camera by his anonymous employers, who hired him via Craigslist in 2008. Over the next three years, some 10,000 players would—at different times—participate on, or at least follow, the madcap game online, with McCall often tagging along. Later he went back to do interviews, including with the game’s producer, Jeff Hull, who sort of comes clean. “There should be this kind of play suffused in the architecture of the real world,” says Hull, who also talks of “giving permission to be an agent.” At that point, you’re unsure if he’s a Werner Erhard–style huckster or a Silicon Alley tub-thumper about to do a product launch. That uncertainty mirrors the players’ nervous yet giddy involvement. For all parties, there’s a fine line between being swindled and being entertained.