The Institute: Film Review

The Institute Film Still - H 2013

The Institute Film Still - H 2013

Tantalizing semi-doc is not for the literal-minded.

Spencer McCall plays along with a mysterious art project that unfolded over years in the Bay Area.

Half put-on and half document of a fantastically elaborate, gamelike art project, Spencer McCall's The Institute takes viewers on a journey that was shared (to greater and lesser extents) by thousands of San Francisco and Oakland residents from 2008 to 2011. Intentionally hard to decipher, the film will frustrate viewers who insist on knowing which interviewees are recounting real experiences and which are perpetuating fictions hatched by the game's creator, Jeff Hull. But mystery is part of the appeal, and the film's special-engagement rollout, currently expanding beyond California, seems likely to carry it to its most receptive, multiplex-averse audiences.

Our first exposure to the game is through the eyes of a man who stumbled across it accidentally -- seeing odd flyers around San Francisco that advertised science-fictional products. Finally intrigued enough to call a phone number on the flyers, he was directed to a bland corporate office concealing secret rooms, cryptic instructions, and a scavenger hunt-like path leading him back out onto streets he now found to be full of mysterious signs.

This was Chapter One of a sprawling, three-year fiction incorporating the lore of cults, pseudo-science self-help, and individual characters like Eva, a runaway whose father reputedly discovered an "Algorithm" to "reduce all human conflict."

Eva's father "is a real person," insists one of the interviewees here, whose own tale of playing the game starts believably but veers into obvious fiction. These interludes in which McCall seems to be taking direction from Hull instead of chronicling his creation lead one to suspect The Institute is just one more chapter in an artwork that, despite reports to the contrary, will continue to sprout new subplots indefinitely.

More likely, the film aims to give viewers some part of the "what am I seeing here?" thrill afforded to the game's players, while eventually making a stab at summarizing the entire, no-really-it's-over-now, project. That summary isn't straightforward enough to stand as the definitive account of a creative effort cross-breeding the Happenings of the 60s with New York City's Improv Everywhere antics and Lost-style mythology, but it's quite an introduction for those of us unlucky enough not to have seen it first-hand.

Production Company: Pen & Banjo Films, Nonchalance

Director-Producer-Editor: Spencer McCall

Director of photography: Paul Encinas

Music: Anthony Cardenas

No rating, 90 minutes