Though current examples might suggest otherwise, not all conspiracy theories have been based on hate, fear, and intolerance.
In late August 1953, George Van Tassel, an aeronautics engineer who once worked with Howard Hughes, was sleeping under the stars next to Giant Rock, a seven-story free-standing boulder in the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Solganda, a Venusian space traveler who spoke perfect English, woke him up and offered plans for the Integratron, a dome-shaped building with the power to extend lifespans by means of a supercharged magnetic field.
Van Tassel set to work constructing the dome, gathering a group of believers inspired by his new religion, which preached peace, love, and a utopia of eternal youth and renewable energy derived from the alien technology. In 1978, just as he was about to complete the project and put it into action, Van Tassel died of a heart attack. All his notes and plans and his secret machinery had vanished. Some of his followers suspected foul play.
“Calling All Earthlings,” Jonathan Berman’s brisk, sometimes glib documentary about Van Tassel and his followers, mixes excerpts from an old black-and-white TV interview with the stolid visionary; footage from the Hollywood feature “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers” (1956); letters sent by a nosy, patriotic citizen to the FBI about the strange and possibly subversive goings-on at Van Tassel’s Integratron site; commentaries from a scoffing, skeptical scientist; and a professor at the University of Southern California who puts the phenomenon in a Joseph Campbell-like cultural context; and excerpts from Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell speech.
But anchoring this diverting, disparate collage are interviews with those who still believe in Van Tassel’s faith and message. These desert denizens, including some of Van Tassel’s original associates, his surviving relatives, New Agey, latter-day hippie types, and UFO true believers, tend to the oddly beautiful, meticulously constructed dome itself. Its interior possesses a golden glow and provides perfect acoustics for those who come there to chant, play musical instruments, and meditate on the harmony of the cosmos.
Berman’s tone and his attitude toward his subjects varies from respectful curiosity to gentle gibing. He consults a desert shaman and channeler who lives in a mobile home stacked with Edgar Cayce books and paperbacks about the Bermuda Triangle who gets in touch with Van Tassel’s spirit (“He’s interested in your project,” she tells Berman). Art Kunkin, the founder of the alternative weekly the LA Free Press, recalls how he sent a reporter to cover Van Tassel’s Interplanetary Spacecraft Convention in the 1970s. Kunkin describes him as “kind of nutty,” then mentions his own interest in alchemy and presents a bell jar containing apples and a chunk of uranium ore which he hopes will re-create the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil from the Garden of Eden.
“This place has made some people quite insane,” says a young local resident pondering the Mojave night while taking a hit off his hash pipe. As one acolyte puts it, the desert inspired Van Tassel with the dream of one day achieving a paradise of universal love in outer space, a New Jerusalem in the sky. These days, that doesn’t sound insane at all.
“Calling All Earthlings” is available on VOD.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.