The late Anthony Bourdain described it as “a special place where an inexplicable confluence of people, magnetic forces, extra terrestrials, and otherwise strange shit came together.”
In the episode of No Reservations, Bourdain’s sound bath at the Integratron, a 38-foot-tall wooden cupola in the middle of the Mojave Desert, is paired with a psychedelic montage. Which makes sense. Many hipsters and new-age types seek a sort of Ayahuasca Lite experience at one of the “sound baths” there. (Some 30 participants lie on a mat as a sort of healer-musician rubs the rims of crystal bowls and fills the vaulted space with calming, surreally resonant tones). But the backstory of the bizarre building is even trippier, and it’s explored by Jonathan Berman in his new documentary, Calling All Earthlings, opening at Maysles Cinema on Aug. 1.
The Integratron was built by George Van Tassel, a former aircraft mechanic and inspector who in the 1940s moved to the desert town of Landers, California and opened a small airport and cafe adjacent a massive boulder that was considered sacred by Native Americans. As Van Tassel told it, one morning in 1953, when he and his wife and daughters were living inside of a cave under Giant Rock, a 700-year-old native of Venus brought him aboard a spacecraft and gave him the secret to eternal youth. Just as God told Moses to build a tabernacle, Solganda the Venusian told Van Tassel how to construct the Integratron– not a building so much as a full-on time travel machine that could generate enough electromagnetic current to change cellular structure. By essentially recharging the battery of its inhabitants, the Integratron would add decades to their lives and allow them to grow old enough and wise enough to save humanity.
Calling All Earthlings contains archive footage of Van Tassel– looking like a generic Man in the Gray Flannel Suit– calmly explaining his theories to a sometimes flabbergasted interviewer. And there’s an audio recording of Van Tassel channeling his alien friends, sounding like a droning William S. Burroughs. But the film doesn’t focus too intently on the Nikola Tesla-inspired science behind his theories. Berman previously directed Commune, about the Black Bear Ranch commune in ’60s California, and he’s more interested in the community that developed around Van Tassel as he built the Integratron over the course of 25 years and hosted massive UFO conventions in the desert in order to fund his endeavors. He’s also interested in the people who continue to gravitate toward the structure, including the three sisters who bought it in 2000 and began hosting sound baths and other events there.
Among those interviewed are Bob Benson, who helped print Proceedings, the newsletter of Van Tassel’s Scientology-esque College of Universal Wisdom. Benson is now working to complete Van Tassel’s work by testing mice in a scale model of the Integratron.
You can peruse copies of Proceedings if you visit the Integratron for a sound bath, or you can read them online. The content is akin to what you might see on the conspiracy-theory website of Sacha Baron Cohen’s new character, Dr. Billy Wayne Ruddick.
Despite such rich source material, Berman, a self-described “skeptic who wants to believe in magic,” doesn’t delve deeply into Van Tassel’s wacky fusion of sacred geometry, Christianity, and sci-fi (among other things, Van Tassel claimed Jesus was from outer space). And he resists the temptation to mock it. In a director’s statement, he says, “My continued obsession with the dome is in its action as a talisman, offering profound questions about our relationship to life and each other. I follow the conversation of a subculture, not with derision or slavish devotion, but with love and possibility.”
Berman is willing to humor the paranormal to such an extent that he gets a medium to channel Van Tassel in order to resolve the mysteries around his death in 1978. Did he really die of a heart attack, or is there any truth to the theory that his wife was a government agent who poisoned him? And what happened to Van Tassel’s papers, which apparently went missing immediately after he was cremated? One doubts the filmmaker takes much stock in the medium’s answer; the point is more to highlight the off-beat, open-minded denizens of the desert, including an eco-dome builder who is living out of his car when he spontaneously becomes the film’s production assistant.
If Van Tassel’s grip on reality seems tenuous, it’s made clear that his neighbors and his government were equally misguided. The FBI considered him “a mental case,” according to declassified files quoted in the film. But the agency also wondered whether his UFO conventions, located near a military base, were a front for Communist activity. One neighbor told the FBI that his ramblings sounded suspiciously Marxist. So who’s the paranoid one, eh?
Calling All Earthlings has many of the ingredients of Wild Wild Country, right down to the charismatic guru cultivating a community of wide-eyed believers in the desert while his neighbors and government look on suspiciously. But at 77 minutes, the ingredients don’t really have time to come together, and we’re left with something almost as scattered as Bourdain’s psychedelic sound-bath visions.
Luckily, the score by downtown guitar wizard Elliott Sharp ties things together somewhat and adds an appropriately ethereal touch. Sharp will be playing at the film’s Aug. 1 opening, and other screenings will feature, yes, sound baths.
“Calling All Earthlings” opens Aug. 1 at the Maysles Documentary Center, 343 Lenox Ave., Harlem; tickets $12-$25.