Calling All Earthlings

 DATELINE: Post-Tesla Scientist

van tassel Integratron Shell

No, it’s not Ancient Aliens—which leads us to wonder how they could have failed to do a feature on George Van Tassel, the 1950s UFO-logist who held fabulous meetings out in the desert near Twenty-Nine Palms and Big Rock with 10,000 UFO followers.

California koo-koo birds have flocked to the deserts of California for decades. As the movie Calling All Earthlings indicates, many are still there.

Foremost was George Van Tassel, a US Defense Department weapons expert from Lockheed who also worked for Howard Hughes. He became disenchanted with nuclear warfare games—and moved his small family to an underground residence at Big Rock.

In the early 1950s, he began receiving messages and instructions on how to build a time machine, which he called the Integratron. It is still there, a marvel of creation that looks like a work from Frank Lloyd Wright. Made from the best lumber supplied by Howard Hughes.

How he built such an expensive, amazing structure can be explained by the folklore:  Howard Hughes flew in regularly with satchels of cash.

What Van tassel worked on was not a standard time machine. His was a walk-through that would cut 30% off your age.It was not recommended for those under 18. Even as a shell today, its acoustics are oddly perfect.

After 25 years of work, just as Van Tassel was about to start up, he allegedly suffered a major heart attack and died in a motel near Los Angeles. Some thought he was murdered. All his notes and research went missing—and his Integratron (always under FBI surveillance) was looted and rendered useless. Van Tassel wrote a few books, including I Rode in a Flying Saucer.

Director Jonathan Berman’s idiosyncratic documentary is nearly as weird as the inhabitants of Big Rock, but this makes for a fascinating exploration of a man after Tesla’s heart and Howard Hughes’ wallet.

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

DATELINE: Recluses We Love

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Sound of One Fist Banging on a Car Window

J.D. Salinger published one novel during his lifetime and thumbed his nose at the publishing world and the fawning fans for the next 50 years of his life.

Becoming a recluse may be an important spiritual decision, but the critics of this documentary directed by Shane Salerno don’t see it that way. This film moves in the direction of depicting Salinger as his own label: a fiction writer who grew sick of being hounded by fans who spent half their lives in a Zen Buddhist monastery and the other half as an outpatient sending the writer mash notes.

That did not dissuade the people who went to the woods of New Hampshire to bother this man, encouraging him to build a bunker to write in peace.

Now that he’s dead, J.D. Salinger’s private production of manuscripts will be published over the next few years. That should either cement his literary legacy, or put cement overshoes on his importance.

The documentary does not have much to work with: the man dispensed only a few morsels to the public over his 90+ years of life. And, the crazed fans know every detail by heart as if they were stars on a radio show for precocious children.

The documentary has a complex flashback narrative that may disorient those who like the linear, but to produce a mystery about a reclusive writer may require a few “Hollywood” writing tricks in the mode of Joe Mankiewicz. Of course, Salinger only allowed one short story to be made into a movie—and he hated that. So, his ‘fans’ hate this little film.

We found it fascinating, like the character of a man who belonged to the great generation of World War II veterans. Salinger created a timeless icon in Holden Caulfield as The Catcher in the Rye, and that made him open game for cultists and self-centered readers who thought they had some personal connection.

Salinger was a character in W.P. Kinsella’s book Shoeless Joe, but fought tooth and nail to keep his name out of the movie Field of Dreams. He stopped bootleg copies of his early stories from being circulated. All of this fell within his right as a living writer who sold 60 millions copies and made a fortune.

One of his friends, A.E. Hotchner called him the literary Howard Hughes. If you like Glenn Gould, Greta Garbo, B. Traven, and Emily Dickinson, you will want to see how J.D. Salinger fits into that crew. We are predisposed to this film and prejudiced, having moved to the woods because we want to be alone.