When documentarian Jonathan Berman came across the story of George van Tassel and the Integratron, he surely must have had just a single thought – nobody could make this up.
The elements that comprise the story of the former aircraft mechanic who built a mysterious structure in the middle of the California desert – all of which are covered in “Calling All Earthlings” – sound like plot devices, characters and motifs written into a Hollywood script by a writer well versed in 1950s UFO lore.
It’s got Tesla-esque science, old-timers living in the desert who are as dusty as their surroundings (complete with incredible stories), the military-industrial complex, the bizarre promise about a machine that prolongs life, new age quackery, aging hippies, Howard Hughes, UFO conventions in the desert, contact with benevolent aliens, the FBI and a possible cover-up.
George van Tassel seemed every inch the buttoned down company man engineer in the immediate postwar period, working for several iconic names in the aeorspace industry. Then in 1947 he moved his family to the middle of the Mojave Desert to a place called Giant Rock (so named after the gigantic boulder in the landscape).
They operated a cafe and airstrip nearby and lived under the rock in a series of rooms carved out by a local mechanic van Tassel had worked for, a mysterious German immigrant whose title over the property van Tassel acquired after his death.
It’s not clear what happened to prompt such a move – he’d been well placed in his industry, including as a sometime advisor to reclusive industralist Howard Hughes – but he claimed he’d been contacted by aliens who promised to share the secrets of time travel, infinite energy and extended lifespan.
The result was the Integratron, a two story-high dome structure that’s still there in a town called Landers and which was intended to generate ‘intermittent magnetic fields resulting in the generation of plasma in the form of a coronal discharge and negative air ionization inside the building’ (according to Wikipedia).
But just to add to the 50s, “Men In Black”, J Edgar Hoover-inspired mystique of movie-style paranoia, van Tassel died of a heart attack in 1978, leaving the final stage of the machine unfinished (of course, the aliens only dispensed the next set of instructions when he’d finished the previous step). Whatever plans or notes he had for the next stage mysteriously disappeared from a desert motel room, the Intagratron vandalised and left useless.
While director Jonathan Berman doesn’t even try to get to the botom of the mystery, he introduces us to a cast of supporting characters who seem just as fictional as the story of van Tassel and the Integratron themselves.
There’s a Native American elder who believes his people originated in space, a flower child woman who talks about auras, harmonics and other dimensions, a pair of married futurists who look and talk like they just stumbled home after an epic LSD key party and the Publisher of the LA Free Press, a guy who looks like he turned on, tuned in and dropped out decades ago.
It’s not clear whether Berman is more interested in telling van Tassel’s story or whether he simply considers it the narrative framework to take us on a whistle stop tour of the counter-culture denizens of the Joshua Tree area.
You might feel the film needs to concentrate more on one thing or the other, to relegate the modern story surrounding the Integratron (it’s currently used as a tourist attraction by three sisters who hold ‘sound baths’ there) to the fringes and concentrate on van Tassel and his communion with aliens or vice versa.
But you can’t deny that not many writers could line up this many iconic elements straight out of a postwar comic book so perfectly by design. “Calling All Earthlings” so beautifully captures a Saturday matinee/“X-Files” tone it feels like a subtly brilliant mockumentary. It’s indeed stranger than fiction.