Hey there, I’m Jared. I have 496 movies and shows in my Instant Queue and that’s just way too many. I’m not adding anymore movies or shows to it until it’s empty. So, I’m going to start at Number One and work my way down the list and give you guys a choice of the next five in my queue, in order, all the way to the end. But, I’m also thinking of you and your unwieldy queue and all the movies you want to watch but no longer have the time to now that you’ve become so awesome and popular. Let me know what has been gathering digital dust in your Netflix Instant library and I’ll watch that too. Let’s get to it!
What’s the movie? The Institute (2013)
What’s it rated? Unrated for inventing the urban playground movement, confusing a ton of people in the Bay Area and basically being an interactive version of Welcome to Night Vale.
Did people make it? Directed by Spencer McCall. Acted by Jeff Hull, Boston Blake, Arye Bender, Chelsea London Lloyd.
What’s it like in one sentence? Real life whimsey collides with tragedy divided by an alternate reality game.
Why did you watch it? This one was all me. I have been wanting to see it all year.
What’s it about in one paragraph? An alternate reality game begins in San Francisco and Oakland and over the course of three years, brings thousands of people into its world. The Jejune Institute is a scientific research group founded in the ’70’s after creating The Algorithm, a mathematical formula to create peace. In 2008, people started seeing flyers, posters and bizarrely cryptic street art that led them to the Jejune Institute on the 16th floor of a downtown San Francisco bank building. As more people started joining the institute (which basically led them on a treasure hunt all across the city), a new faction comes forward flying against everything the Jejune Institute stands for, calling them out as the true villains. To give any more away would be mean, but all of this connects to a real life disappearance (I think) and a rabbit hole that just goes deeper and deeper.
Play or remove from my queue? The film should definitely be watched, but I’m honestly not sure what I thought of it. I had trouble researching what exactly was true in this film and what was part of the game, which I’m sure was purposeful, but it also left the entire film feeling quite muddled and confusing. I’m going to unpack my brain in the next few paragraphs, so SPOILERS ABOUND.
I love the idea of alternate reality games as a concept. Something that pulls strangers together to scour a city for clues to unravel a deep and fascinating mythology just touches me right in all my brain parts, but this game (and the film about the game) rubbed me the wrong way a little bit. To start with, the film doesn’t distinguish what’s a re-inactment, what’s part of the game and what’s actually true. Now, that’s a smart way to make a documentary about an alternate reality game and I appreciate the concept and what they were trying for, but it makes the experience of watching the film exhausting since you’re trying to figure out whether you’re being lied to or not the entire time.
The film actually spends the first 20 minutes or so treating the Jejune Institute as something real and that the doc is actually an expose on a crazy real life thing, but then laser guns and weird art installations filled with men in black body costumes writhing around on the ground while people with bullhorns yell at them happens. Right when I was like “what the fuck am I looking at,” we meet Jeff Hull, the writer and creator of the game (which as far as I can tell is called”Elsewhere” although nobody ever outright calls it that…but nobody ever calls it The Institute, either).
In the 1980’s, Jeff Hull met a girl named Eva who was going through a rough patch and ended up staying on Hull’s couch for awhile and while he was in treatment, she disappeared. The first chunk of the movie focuses on the people actually playing the game and what the storyline and rules were…and finding Eva is built up to be the big endgame. In the alternate reality story, she opposed the Jejune Institute and they possibly made her disappear so she would stop spreading discord. But this is where I get confused. For half the movie we think that the story of Eva is just part of the game, but then Hull talks about her as if she is a real person that he knew and that her disappearance was something that really fucked him up. But apparently (in the best research I could do without much time) a punk girl named Eva did disappear in San Francisco near Coit Tower in 1988.
Where the film starts losing me is when they introduce some “actual” footage from the night she disappeared and it’s obviously actors pretending to be natural. The cops show up and “Eva” and her friends run and you can almost imagine the director yelling “CUT.” I like the blending of truth/fantasy, but that felt like an outright lie more than anything. When an anonymous talking head waxes on about the time he met her, it sounds like he is reciting lines. I guess if the actual fiction felt more real, it would have made the lines even blurrier and it would have seemed less like The Blair Witch Project. I love a good magic trick, but when there are constant accidental peeks behind the curtain, I just feel like I’m being lied to more than entertained. If Eva was a real girl, then the film does her memory a disservice by fictionalizing her disappearance and if she is a figment of Hull’s layers of story, then the entire thing is too meta to support itself.
So, on the 20th anniversary of her disappearance, Juff Hull starts the Jejune Institute Game. The street art leading people around is amazing, the places that participated were impressive (including the breathtaking Neptune Society Mausoleum) and the plot of the game was intriguing. After the game went on for three years, Hull realized he needed to create an ending because he couldn’t afford to do it anymore. He figured most people playing the game would assume the denouement would contain chases, fights and a massive struggle between The Jejune Institute and the rival cult that painted them as villains. Because, again, aside from the plot about Eva being missing, that was the story he was telling. So his big idea for the end? Have everybody still playing (which in the video only looked to be about 100 or so people) be led to some sort of hotel convention center where the leader of the Jejune Institute would be giving a seminar. Mostly everyone still participating had figured out that Jejune were the “actual” bad guys and used the invitation as a way to infiltrate the Institute to meet its founder and destroy it from within. They figured the good guys would show up and destroy the bad guys and everyone would be entertained and then get drunk. But instead it really was just a seminar where an actor playing the son of the fictional head of the Institute led the players in quasi-’60’s breathing and team building exercises. They all made some tea. Then it was over. After three years.
When Jeff Hull is asked about the end of the game he becomes a little bit defensive and says that he knew people were expecting some big fight between the warring cultists or the reappearance of Eva and he came up with the idea for the end just to punish those people. Because, he says, the game was really about remembering Eva. Which is a nice thought, but here’s the problem. Yes, Eva popped up a lot through the game and her story was fascinating and she is definitely built up as a mythical figure who died so people could know the Jejune Institute was evil. Because she was written into a fictional storyline so brilliantly, how would the players know if she was a real human being who went missing and was more than likely dead? Sure, the internet exists and we can all do research, but the amount of work Hull and his crew took on to make this experience as immersive as it was could easily explain away a 20-year-old missing notice on a website. Basically, it seems to me like Hull punished hundreds (if not thousands) of people who loved his game for not respecting that the story was about Eva, even though most of those people thought she was a construct and were expecting to see the actress playing Eva pop up at the seminar. That seems like a really shitty way to treat people who put their trust in your art and your world-building.
The only talking heads in the film that actually seem like real people are the folks sharing their experiences playing the game. While it definitely seems like a “you had to be there” type of deal, you can see how affected these people were by the game and how completely depressed and deflated they were by the end of it. It’s like expertly capturing the imaginations of thousands of people and right when you have them at the finish line you tell them they were fucking idiots for even having imaginations and they should go home and feel bad about themselves. As the final minutes of the film played out and I saw where it was going, I felt their frustration and deflation. Maybe Hull ran out of money and could only afford a conference room in the basement of a Best Western but then he should have been honest about that instead of putting the onus of his incredibly shitty ending onto the people who actually helped make the game a reality.
And that’s the thing: Hull did succeed in getting people to put down their fucking phones and talk to each other while working together to solve a common goal. But just because the goal is righteous doesn’t mean I have to like how it all played out. I do recommend watching the movie as it is fascinating to watch an alternate history come to life in a documentary setting, but the mash-up style filmmaking along with the antics of the real life game make the film frustrating on a fundamental level. I’ll be thinking about this movie for a long time and I’m not necessarily sure that’s a good thing.
How’s the music? Not bad although it sounds like it’s straight from a horror movie.
What does Netflix say I’d like if I like this? The Source Family (a phenomenal doc), Connected (looks condescending), Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy (highly recommended if you’re in the mood for it), The City Dark (mayyyybe) and Pablo (looks great).
Do you have an interesting fun-fact? What is a fact and where do I find it?
What is Netflix’s best guess for Jared? 4.5
What is Jared’s best guess for Jared? ????????????????????????????????
Can you link to the movie? As you wish.
Any last thoughts? I know I spent the last 2,000 words bitching about the movie, but it is fascinating and ultimately feels like you witnessed a real life Dharma Initiative infiltrating the world. It’s worth watching for that reason alone.
What else you watching? Getting deep into Veep, Season 2!
Any spoilerish thoughts about last week’s film, Journey to the West? Not really. I’m glad you guys liked as much as I did (if not more).
Next Week? A Fantastic Fear of Everything followed by Blue Ruin.