Joshua trees, apparently, are found in only two places on Earth – Golgotha, outside Jerusalem, and in the Southern California desert … prompting some to speculate that they mark the portals to Heaven and Hell. That’s just one of the throwaways from the many interviewees in Jonathan Berman’s documentary, and it would be a meagre soul indeed who used the modern scrying pool of the internet to fact-check the statement, or any of the others trotted out in this connect-the-dots traipse around the environs and through the history of the Integratron, an impressive wooden circular building built in Big Rock – near Joshua Tree, Ca – by George Van Tassel, an aircraft engineer and ‘UFO contactee’ who claimed that a seven-hundred-year-old Venusian named Solganda (who looked ‘no more than twenty-eight’) gave him the necessary equations.
Currently the site of crystal drum-based spiritual healing new aginess, the Integratron was supposed to be a time machine – though more in the sense of giving people more time to live than in transporting them to the Year 5000 to fight mutants – but Van Tassel happened to die of a heart attack just before he was due to turn it on, and shadowy forces dismantled the crucial components, either to sell for scrap or to keep free clean alternative energy off the market. The range of 20th century favourites covered is quite astounding – we get Nicola Tesla (by inspiration), Howard Hughes (Van Tassel’s old employer), L. Ron Hubbard (by inference – Van Tassel founded his own church), alien abduction, FBI COINTELPRO infiltration of countercultures, suspicion of commie eggheads in the desert, Eric Burdon of The Animals, competing UFO theories, Star Wars (Van Tassel saw it and said George Lucas ‘knew about the Force’), a hippie dippy chaneler who passes on Van Tassel’s approval of the film project, secret military projects (Big Rock abuts an off-limits proving ground), a resident who sneers at ‘liberal idiots’ but mentions a Shriner pal of his was in on the Roswell ET autopsy, Van Tassel’s tangle of family relationships (many feuds are hinted at – including allegations that his second wife was a government plant sent to scupper the Integratron), and a lot of musing on the status of the desert as America’s big empty sacred space where folks go to contemplate the eternal or look into their souls and come back with a) heavy answers and deep insight, and b) sunburn and dehydration.
It can’t possibly pick up every thread, and I suspect going deeper into all this is a way to waste a great deal of time. The range of interviewees includes mostly sweet-natured, if off-the-wall types who – as most freely admit – might have smoked a bit too much weed. Even the genial, sceptical academic who talks a lot of sense seems fond of this loose collection of well-meaning loons … though it’s worth remembering the Charles Manson and L. Ron Hubbard traded in similar ideas with much, much darker outcomes. The Integratron, which looks a bit like a grounded flying saucer and was supposed to have a revolving frill of stubby metal doodads, is an impressive structure which lends itself to being photographed dramatically. It stands as a fascinating curio of the mid-20th century, when Americans yearned for something like pulp magazine profundity and hoped machines – rather than, say, less junk food and more exercise – would extend their lifespans.