In Bright Axiom opens with a sepia-toned narrative prologue about a professor called to a journey of self-discovery. Then it shifts into contemporary talking heads relating their experiences about participation in a secret society called the Latitude, a Bay Area cult of sorts that invited members to art events and planned escape room-esque entertainment with an aura of mystery and ritual to keep them involved.
To anyone — like me, or really almost anyone watching In Bright Axiom — unfamiliar with the Latitude’s story, it’s unclear whether the film is narrative fiction or a documentary. In fact, having read up on the real-life story (“Can a Secret Society Become a Business,” “My Year in San Francisco’s $2mil Secret Society“), it’s still unclear whether director Spencer McCall is interested in distinguishing fact from fiction. Is this an exploration of how contemporary entertainment experiences form religious devotion overnight or a cleverly crafted snow-job built by the perpetrators of a failed marketing scheme to capture their work in amber and advertise future projects?
Artist and entrepreneur Jeff Hull was the mastermind behind the Latitude. His work also served as inspiration for AMC’s recent TV series Dispatches from Elsewhere, as well as 2013’s The Institute (also made with McCall). Hull is independently wealthy and devoted to creating public experiences as works of art. Ambiguity is his part and parcel: Are your fellow participants genuinely sharing an experience or simply part of the performance? Although intriguing from the get-go, Axiom ultimately suffers from the fact that the audience cannot trust anything contained within. Without supplementary material, it comes across as the facetious work of rich artists without any empathy or perspective for the human emotions they’re trying to toy with for attention and personal benefit.
The Latitude was shared from person to person via small mysterious cards swearing invitees to secrecy and seems to have functioned as a collection of open-mic-night art events called Praxis and murder mystery party-style group activities. It spread quickly amid wealthier social circles and ultimately cost Hull a reported $2 million. Some participants became more devoted than others, following the mythologies and clues like they were more than a group event. It became a cult-like obsession. In the documentary, Hull insists he didn’t foresee this happening. But all indications suggest that the plan was to monetize the Latitude after gaining a large following via merchandise and membership fees. The filmmakers are upfront in the film about the latter but not the former, detailing the night everything went south for the experiment when they insisted members pay $35 a month to continue attending gatherings and parties.
This, in part, was because of the multimillion-dollar overhead for the physical art installations, food and beverages up to that point. It was time to monetize the experiment, and the bet was that those devoted to it would be willing to fork over cash to continue. When that failed, the Latitude was immediately shut down. Members who had come to rely on the continued content to bond with their friends were left in the dust while Hull and company moved on to other projects.
The rise and fall of a tech yuppie cult is an interesting story in and of itself. Axiom constantly intercuts the “documentary” portion with narrative bits following their community’s “founding mythology,” which is about as deep and thoughtful as L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology mumbo-jumbo about Xenu. It’s far less interesting, though, and as Axiom starts to bridge the two, it slowly undercuts the talking heads who insisted that they were seeking a real experience with the Latitude. None of the featured interview subjects is named or otherwise identified. It becomes clear that the experiences they’re openly discussing about how they were seeking a tonic for loneliness or social displacement simply may not be true — that each and every one of them is a stand-in for the people Hull probably had no real interest in interviewing for a movie about his failures to understand what he was messing with in search of profit and fortune.
Still, the experience of watching Axiom isn’t unpleasant or diversionary. At times, it feels like Under the Silver Lake, last year’s glorious conspiracy thriller about a young man either lost in a vast underground conspiracy in Los Angeles … or simply his own delusions about said conspiracy. Like Silver Lake, the atmosphere and pleasant disorientation is captured well. Unlike that piece of straight-ahead fiction, however, Axiom lacks the necessary empathy to maintain its narrative weight.
Everything interesting and human about the Latitude story can be found in the articles I linked above. Making sense of In Bright Axiom requires supplementary material to really grapple with its artistic aims because those articles come from a place of honesty and perspective. This isn’t an earnest or thoughtful film about the role social media can play in the creation of contemporary art, even though pretends to be. It has no intention of probing the intersection of marketing and socializing for twentysomethings in the 2010s, although it feigns it.
This is simply an advertisement for the next job from a group of artists and a declaration that any pain they caused participants was not intentional or, in their eyes, their fault. That lack of interest in connecting with the human psyche on anything beyond a superficial level renders In Bright Axiom a very, very well-made artistic waste of energy, bringing to mind the dueling Fyre Festival documentaries. If you’re a rich bohemian whose failure costs you a ton of money and prestige, just make a fake documentary about how none of it was your fault and hope Netflix picks it up. Modern art museums proudly platform painted piles of trash all the time as expressions of artistic merit. Axiom is just the 21st-century equivalent.