Posted in: Review

In Bright Axiom

It’s entirely possible (and even likely) that quite a lot of the material in Spencer McCall’s documentary In Bright Axiom is complete hokum. The movie itself is a chronicle of hokum, documenting the performance art project and alternate reality game known as Latitude, created by Bay Area artist and entrepreneur Jeff Hull. Hull’s work was also the subject of McCall’s 2013 documentary The Institute, which looked back at an earlier Hull alternate reality game, the Jejune Institute, and was the inspiration for the recent AMC drama series Dispatches From Elsewhere.

While the lines between fact and fiction were similarly blurry in The Institute, that movie was more clearly a journalistic investigation of Hull’s game, while In Bright Axiom, which was produced with Hull’s full cooperation, feels like it’s part of the game itself. McCall interviews participants who talk about their mysterious induction into Latitude via cryptic clues, hidden passageways and secret messages, and he also talks to Hull and other creators who worked on the project. There’s no onscreen text identifying any of the interviewees, though, and anyone who hasn’t seen The Institute may take a while to figure out what exactly these people are talking about.

McCall also includes extensive footage essentially re-enacting aspects of the game, with hushed narration about finding your purpose and discovering the secrets of the universe (the title refers to one of Latitude’s mostly nonsensical guiding principles). It’s not always apparent where these narrative sections begin and the retrospective interviews end, or even which participants are talking honestly about their personal experiences, and which are still playing some sort of role. The narrative sections effectively convey the surreal, dreamlike quality of the game, and it’s easy to see how people would have eagerly immersed themselves in the world that Hull and his collaborators created.

Eventually, McCall lays the facts out a little more clearly, and the movie comes down a bit from its ethereal tone to get into some of the uncomfortable real-world details about Latitude, which eventually grew beyond its founders’ ability to effectively control. When Hull attempted to shift what many participants saw as a transcendent life experience into a piece of paid entertainment, he alienated many of his most fervent supporters, and some of the movie’s interviewees take on a combative stance, even with McCall himself (who’s clearly aligned more with Hull). For the full details of how Latitude failed as a business, you’ll have to read news articles that were published at the time, but McCall at least acknowledges that not everyone was pleased with the outcome.

The movie, however, soon returns to its lofty atmosphere, recreating aspects of Latitude’s foundational mythology, and it can feel a bit pretentious in a way that The Institute rarely did. In that sense, it’s more aligned with creator/star Jason Segel’s fictionalized take in Dispatches From Elsewhere, which took the sense of wonder from Hull’s projects at face value. McCall attempts to convey that sense to his audience, encouraging viewers to embrace the same kind of experience that Latitude participants did, and, as one interviewee notes, the documentary can function as the game’s final chapter. That makes it less valuable as a piece of nonfiction reporting, but more effective as a means of artistic expression.

3 stars (out of 5)

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