Review by Inkoo Kang
Anyone who has visited the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City will recognize in “The Institute” a similar compendium of arbitrarily cherished objects, the transformation of everyday words into indecipherable jargon, and a heartfelt striving to reach humanity’s full potential. In Spencer McCall’s documentary, the key to unlocking that potential is an algorithm that will eradicate “human conflict, violence and heartbreak.” Easy-peasy.
In 2008, McCall began editing “informative” videos for the Jejune Institute, a Scientology-like self-development program in San Francisco that promised “divine nonchalance,” or very good luck. The filmmaker didn’t know at the time that the now-defunct institute was something else altogether — a unique hybrid of citywide scavenger hunt and public art project that led its participants through an open-ended, semi-organized game.
In one event, a young man is ordered to dance by a mechanized voice over the phone. As his legs start moving to an inaudible beat, two others join him in the revelry: a track-suited dude with a boombox and a man dressed as Sasquatch.
Because “The Institute” is largely framed as if the viewer were a co-player in Jejune’s art game, the film is an experience that’s fun and frustrating in equal measure. Eventually, the documentary’s limited perspective becomes a liability when the screen goes dark and we’re left with more questions than answers. Adventures only take us so far.
“The Institute” is available on Netflix Instant Watch streaming service.