'In Bright Axiom': Film Review

Pen & Banjo Productions
A bit too mysterious for its own good.

Spencer McCall introduces viewers to a secret society that blended theatrics and sincerity in the Bay Area.

Convoluted role-playing game, metastasized immersive-theater event or cult? The San Francisco/Oakland phenomenon called the Latitude Society was many different things even to the relative handful of people who were part of it. Full of mystery, elaborate contrivance and attention to detail, it's a tantalizing subject, and one that, if you read about it in a journalistic account, would seem to demand a documentary. That demand is only partly satisfied by Spencer McCall's In Bright Axiom, largely thanks to the filmmakers' involvement in the thing they're depicting. Not sure whether it wants to provide a factual account, sympathize with those who mourn the Society's closing or seduce viewers into the group's mythology, the film is more straightforward than another McCall made, 2013's The Institute, about a closely related project. But it still feels insufficiently honest — like a magician who will hint strongly at how a trick is done, but still wants you to believe he has supernatural powers.

Society members were sometimes invited by complete strangers, in a process the doc describes evocatively, often with POV footage putting us in the unsuspecting person's shoes: You'd be given a white key card and an address, entering a building whose nondescript exterior gave no hint of its contents. No one was inside to greet you, but a slide carried you through a passageway to a strange library where an odd tale began. Robocalls would then guide participants out onto the streets, where little clues and experiences were littered about like the elements of a scavenger hunt.

By the time clues led a solitary traveler out to a wooded property in Mendocino, we're told, a kind of self-hypnosis might well have set in — a willingness to believe in worlds beyond this one. Some report worrying that this was the brainwashing stage of a cult induction; soon, they found a party and the assurance that they were "new alchemists" in an effort to expand society's consciousness.

Interviewees are not identified here, which, intentionally or not, makes it hard to know who came to the Society unawares and who was a part of designing it. But soon it's clear there was overlap between the two groups — that newcomers were expected to create novel experiences for each other, at least some of which would fit inside the narrative framework established in the invitation ritual.

Many took this all very seriously. Describing the power some group events had on her, one woman suggests they were "using the technologies of religion without the dogma" — allowing modern urban agnostics to enjoy the pleasures of ritual and symbolism.

But the sense of higher purpose had a downside. Though the doc's storytelling is muddled — often offering interviewees' responses to a development without indicating what they're responding to — we learn that, after becoming emotionally attached to the Society, members were abruptly told they'd have to pay a membership fee. It wasn't a high price to pay for the parties they'd been attending, but for a variety of reasons, many thought it was at odds with Latitude's vibe. At some point after this turned into a group-wide controversy (again, the timeline is murky), Latitude's founder Jeff Hull decided to shut things down, leaving many members genuinely bewildered or heartbroken.

Hull, the film's executive producer, isn't identified by name, and the extent to which he authored Latitude isn't acknowledged. Sitting on a bed in a teddy bear-fur onesie and a tinfoil crown, he looks like the kind of rich kid who can afford not to think his ideas through before putting them into action. That may only be partly true: This excellent article makes it clear that Hull always saw Latitude in terms of a start-up company, albeit an artsy one with a shaky business plan.

That story also includes many important facts the movie doesn't want to share with us. Instead, McCall devotes much time and expense to episodes that make literal some of the stories in the Latitude mythology. Mostly, they concern a fictitious Professor character on some kind of long quest. (He's played by Geordie Aitken, who in real life has a business offering "leadership development, consulting and coaching to professional service companies.") Though initially inviting, furthering the sense that we're vicariously entering the Society ourselves, these come to feel extraneous once the film shifts focus to the membership dramas. Eventually we surmise that In Bright Axiom might hope, in addition to other aims, to be a kind of ritualized closure for those members who felt stranded when Hull shut things down. Go out into the world and continue what we started, the Professor suggests, "creating magic" for yourselves. And for the viewer who wasn't there, and would like a straight answer or two, the film's unstated message seems to be we'll have to find those for ourselves as well.

Production companies: Pen and Banjo Films, Nonchalance
Director-editor: Spencer McCall
Screenwriters: Geordie Aitken, Farouz Gipson, Wylie Herman, Spencer McCall
Producers: Farouz Gipson, Wylie Herman, Spencer McCall
Executive producer: Jeff Hull
Directors of photography: Colin McAuliffe
Composer: Justin Robbins
Venue: Doc NYC

99 minutes