Tuesday, May 03, 2016


I recently watched an unusual documentary film called The Institute. It was another case of "I put the movie in my Netflix queue when I heard about it, but forgot where I heard about it before I finally got around to watching it."

Produced in 2013, the movie looks back on the "Jejune Institute," an alternate reality game (ARG) that ran for several years in San Francisco, starting in 2008. For those unfamiliar with the idea of an ARG, it's a sort of puzzle/scavenger hunt that unfolds over time in the real world, with actors sometimes hired to interact with the players. But this game in particular defies so simple an explanation; having over 90 minutes to work with, the film doesn't ever make it explicitly clear what the Jejune Institute was or what its creators hoped to accomplish with it. It was part art installation, part philosophical thesis, part memorial (maybe?), part self-help seminar... and part many other things too.

The documentary features interviews with different participants in the game, each with very different perspectives on the experience. Some found it a fun diversion from everyday life. Others found it increasing frustrating and weird. Some found it to be a quasi-religious experience. One was convinced it wasn't really a "game." There are also interviews with the creators behind the Jejune Institute... but their comments are often guarded and vague. As is so often the case among artists, they want their art to speak for itself. (And yet, why be interviewed for a movie at all?)

The film also features footage of players participating in different sections of the game, each instance stranger than the last. You get to see the bizarre induction video that kicked off the entire experience. You see people caught up in a staged protest in the San Francisco financial district. You see people trading spy movie-style code phrases on a pay phone. You see a guy dance on the street with a Sasquatch. No kidding.

The thing about the movie, The Institute, is that it seems to be extension of the game, the Jejune Institute. Only parts of the film seem like an objective telling of the story from a reporter's remove. The majority of the film feels like it's trying to make you the viewer have the same blurring-of-reality experience as the game's original players. You get the distinct impression that at least some of the interview subjects are playing for the camera. You're never sure if what you're watching are actual participants, or some staged reenactment for the purposes of this documentary. The entire film itself is "meta" -- part Blair Witch Project, part Punked.

On some level, I suppose I appreciate that a film about a game that wanted to transcend into reality would itself try to mess with the audience and be more than just a film. But it can't really change the fact that you're sitting there comfortably for an hour-and-a-half, taking the movie in and not really interacting with it as you would with a game, ARG or otherwise. I'm not saying I wanted to be force fed, but neither did I feel like I was toyed with in a way that amounted to much.

So all told, I think I'd give The Institute a C+. The idea of actually participating in an ARG sounds compelling to me. But the film seemed like a pale imitation.

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