There isn’t much marijuana use in Jonathan Berman’s documentary Calling All Earthlings, but its elliptical, ramshackle structure could make one question the merits of legalization. The film skirts the edges of its story like a garrulous pothead, its interviews never quite getting to the point.
It might help to know a little about the subject going in: In 1953, aviation engineer George Van Tassel claimed he had been visited by an alien who shared plans for the Integratron, a four-story cylindrical machine that would rejuvenate human cells and provide limitless free energy. Van Tassel purported to channel messages from Venus and hosted desert UFO conferences to fund the Integratron’s construction near the edge of an Air Force base, which brought him to the attention of the FBI. Just as the machine was nearing completion, the story goes, Van Tassel (mysteriously?) died.
Calling All Earthlings invites us to gawk at the crackpots in his wake, but delights in adding fuel to their conspiratorial fire. A busybody’s letters to the FBI, for instance, are presented with fast-cut close-ups of typewritten words, lending them a Beautiful Mind–style fervor. Van Tassel himself is the frustrating hole at the center; his actual channelings and conferences are given short shrift in favor of his followers’ obsessions.
Calling All Earthlings
Directed by Jonathan Berman
Carpe Stella Productions
Now playing, Maylses Cinema
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 1, 2018