AFS Preview: The Institute

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The Institute

The Institute screens as part of Austin Film Society's monthly Avant Cinema series this Wednesday, October 30 (tickets) at 7:30 pm in the AFS Screening Room (1901 E. 51st St).

Around 15 years ago, a friend and I saw a flyer about some performance art experience that would take place in a building on E. 6th Street. We followed the directions, which took us up to the second floor of some 19th-century building. Tacked onto the locked door of the designated room was a hand-printed note that thanked us for participating in the performance by finding the building, walking up the stairs, and reading the note. At first we felt duped and wondered if "they" were watching us and laughing. But when we got back down to the street, we started laughing ourselves at the realization that we really had been part of a performance, not a hoax of some sort.

Watching The Institute (Spencer McCall, 2013) makes me feel much the same way. How much is "real," how much is fiction? What do we mean by those words, and is there really a strong line dividing one from the other?

We are first introduced to people defined as participants and "ex-inductees" in something ostensibly called The Jejune Institute in San Francisco. They had read strangely worded flyers that began appearing around town. Telephone calls led them to a building in the financial district, where they individually were sent to a room with cheap furniture and a video that explained "The Institute," its history and accomplishments, and its goal of reducing human conflict, violence, and heartbreak.

One participant, Garland, admits that he fully expected a sales pitch about joining some new human-potential group led by this fellow Octavio Coleman. But instead Garland found himself going on a kind of eccentric scavenger hunt in various parts of San Francisco. Through clues offered by the folks at Jejune, the City became a kind of magical playground with hidden symbols, words, and messages. Two things kept recurring: the word elsewhere and references to Eva, a young woman who had mysteriously disappeared in 1988.

Ex-inductees, such as Carolee and Jason, reveal their own experiences with The Institute. For Carolee, colors became brighter. She felt that she was looking at her urban surroundings differently. Though she doesn't say anything about mushrooms or other psychedelics, the way she talks sounds exactly like some people after their first experience with mushrooms, acid, or even grass. Had the Jejune Institute found a playful, guided way for people to open their eyes and enjoy their surroundings more intensely? On the other hand, Jason seemed to respond more eagerly to the promise of finding the "secret of nonchalance."

Throughout their reminiscences, we are fed a stream of images and words which may (or may not be) what they individually experienced in the Jejune office or during their explorations of San Francisco in search of clues. Perhaps those images, if we are truly suspending disbelief, are actually inducting us into The Institute. By this point, perhaps the cold fear of "Cult! Brainwashing!" chills our minds and distracts us from the "story" in The Institute.

As if to assist us in that worry, a soothing but authoritative voice -- ostensibly Commander 14 on Cryptic Radio -- begins telling us to resist Octavio Coleman and the Jejune Institute, which is "actually" involved in monitoring and suppressing nonchalance. Shades of Bob Dobbs and the Church of the Subgenius of the 80s. The "reality" of the Jejune Institute, even with a noble mission of turning downtown San Francisco into a place of fun and magic, has begun to sound as fictitious as the pipe-smoking Dobbs who kept insisting on the importance of getting some "slack."

As if to prove my misgivings, we soon meet the artists behind the Jejune Institute, who explain what they originally wanted to do with their creation. But it got out of control. Some people had begun to believe in The Institute ... or so we are led to believe. The more people talk about why they created The Institute or why they oppose it or even why they believe in the young Eva and her colorful journals, the less we can believe anyone. But that may be the very point of this delightful movie (documentary, docudrama, drama, or satire), which takes us down a number of paths which either dead end or actually do make us more open and aware of our surroundings. Just like with the first viewing of The Blair Witch Project, it's probably best to suspend disbelief and take the people's testimony at face value. If so, then there was a Jejune Institute that mysteriously appeared, touched the imaginations of 10,000 people -- if that statistic is to be believed -- then disappeared.

More than that, I don't really want to say because it is the experience of watching The Institute that is the real pleasure. The film is overflowing with scenes of San Francisco, delightful short bursts of imagery edited into "mind-opening" film art, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland (my new favorite mausoleum), and a cast of people either telling their truths or pretending to be characters in this movie. Ultimately, it seems that "The Institute" (film or organization) was designed as a Brechtian exercise in tearing down the stage curtain and making us think about New Age pretensions, on one hand, and the nature of "documentary" on the other. Should we believe those who have testified, those who have "revealed" the truth behind the Jejune Institute, or those who believed in it and are now supposedly suffering withdrawal.

In a perfect choice of words that might imply a self-deprecating truth about the movie The Institute, the word "jejune" should be remembered as an adjective meaning something like "devoid of significance or interest." That is definitely not what I think about the film, but I can't help suspect that Spencer McCall may be having fun with us. That's why I decided not to read Filmmaker magazine's recent interview with him. I simply prefer having fun wondering about the "truth" of this delightful film.

Chale Nafus is the Director of Programming at the Austin Film Society.