SAN MARCOS — It’s a bold thesis to tie together a movement of people who believed in the supernatural and UFOs to broad trends within Southern California’s cultural history. But it’s also the one presented in a new documentary out in the ether directed and created by a professor at Cal State San Marcos.
Titled “Calling All Earthlings,” the new documentary by Jonathan Berman, associate professor in the School of Arts, delves into the mystical Integratron dome building located in the desert near Joshua Tree National Park close to Palm Springs, in a town named Landers.
Built under the instruction of George Van Tassel, true believers in the Integratron have come to believe it had other-earthly healing and anti-aging powers emanating from an outer space force field of energy.
“What inspired me to make the film was when I saw this picture of the dome in a book about California and was just kind of entranced by this kind of gothic planetarium-looking dome,” explained Berman in an interview with The Coast News. “And then just the blurb on it that it was going to be this place for basic experimentation, to life extension, inspired by visitors from another planet. All of that inspired me.”
Van Tassel, who became a leader of a countercultural movement in the area after moving there from Ohio in 1947, also claimed to have seen UFOs flying around in the area. They had sent him a message, he said, about the dangers of the U.S. military developing nuclear bombs and the hydrogen bomb.
But critics who appeared in the film gave a different message: the UFOs Van Tassel and his followers who made the pilgrimage to the dessert were just confidential planes, jets and other flying objects owned by the U.S. military. The U.S. military has a base in nearby Twentynine Palms named the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center.
The critics added that Van Tassel might have passionate followers, but that doesn’t mean that the documentable science is on their side.
For his part, Berman said he was careful not to cast judgment on Van Tassel and his legion of followers in the documentary.
At the same time, albeit, he said it is undeniable that the movement of people who came to follow Van Tassel, his ideas and the Integration, are key pieces of what would eventually become the state’s countercultural movement in the 1960s.
Berman added that Van Tassel, a man from a small Ohio town, was not the most likely candidate to lead such a movement given his background.
And yet, some of his outspoken views on environmental sustainability, his antiwar and anti-establishment posture and his stance on the U.S. Southwest’s nuclear research, testing and development all at the apex of the Cold War, were all enough to land him and his followers in the crosshairs of monitoring by the FBI.
“Calling All Earthlings” documents this FBI monitoring via primary historical documents which are displayed during the movie, one of which describes the movement of people surrounding Van Tassel as a potential “front” for “Communist sympathizers.”
One person interviewed in the movie went so far to say that he believed the FBI monitoring of Van Tassel and his followers can be seen historically as the first frontier of the Bureau’s controversial years-long Counterintelligence Program.
“The idea that he would have these gatherings that were so unusual” at the time and in that place, Berman explained. “(H)e was gathering people in the desert to do this work and to help fund the dome and he was gathering people together to have space craft conventions.
So, all of a sudden people were gathering to discuss very alternative ideas.”
Those ideas, Berman further highlighted, were about concepts such as “peace and love” and a call to “stop your war machines, stuff like that, and love the universe.”
Despite the anti-establishment, counter-cultural and what some may opine as kooky or religious-like nature of those who truly believe in the power of the Integratron, Berman himself and at least one source within the film says that the broad counters of the belief system are actually espoused by most people who come to make a home in California.
Those are the beliefs of environmental sustainability, in fending off aging and the renewed spirit of civic engagement and anti-establishment outrage seen in cities across the state, not to mention the entire country.
“George was able to take that understandable urge to live longer and better, which is still part of people’s lifestyle out here, and I would argue one that spread across the country,” Berman explained. “And kind of couched it as, or talked about it in terms of wisdom and that people only received wisdom after a certain amount of years on the planet, right?”
And though that is the case, Berman said that he hopes to do screenings in San Marcos and more broadly throughout San Diego County for those community groups interested in having him present for post-film question-and-answer sessions and discussions.
This is now Berman’s second film on the state’s countercultural history, with the other one titled “Commune” and covering the countercultural history of Black Bear Ranch in the far Northern California in the 1960s.
Berman says moving to San Marcos from the East Coast and living in teaching in the community has been an instrumental component of his documentary projects completed in recent years.
“Part of the destination is the journey, and it’s been a great journey with all of my colleagues and students” and San Marcos sits as “the heart of the best of Southern California. Beautiful nature, you can think, and it’s a lot more open-minded than back east,” said Berman. “It’s the perfect place to (have time to think), and some of my colleagues are experts in certain fields, like I had anthropology (questions), so I had some feedback there, and yeah, it’s been interesting and it’s been great.”