Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/01/07 01:27:20

"At Least The Rates Are Reasonable"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Thanks to the advent of low-cost digital filmmaking equipment, there has been an explosion in recent years of do-it-yourself documentaries covering every possible subject on the horizon. In that time, I have seen my fair share of these films–some good, some bad–but I can’t readily recall one as singularly strange as “Plagues and Pleasures On the Salton Sea.” This is a film that tells the story of both an ongoing ecological disaster area and the strange denizens who continue to reside there in the crackpot belief that the place will one day restore itself to its former glory. The result is a film so odd that it makes perfect sense that cult filmmaker John Waters was recruited to provide the narration as it tells the kind of story that could have sprung whole from the same imagination that gave the world the likes of “Desperate Living” and “A Dirty Shame,” two titles that could have easily been used here.

The subject of the film is the Salton Sea, an area in the California desert about 130 miles east of San Diego and just south of Palm Springs. The sea was accidentally created at the turn-of-the-century when a plan to divert the waters of the Colorado River backfired and the ensuing floodwaters collected in a 30-square-mile salt flat. A few years later, the body of water was stocked with fish and a thriving fishing industry was born. In the 1950's, real estate developers decided that the area had the potential to be another Palm Springs and transformed it into a vacation destination that some called “the American Riviera.” For a while, the Salton Sea thrived but after a while, a series of disasters–some man-made and some natural–began to occur and the tourism trade died off amongst rumors that the area was polluted with wastewater from Mexico. In 1994, the combination of high temperatures and the high salt content in the water began killing the fish off by the millions and while there were enough left to constantly replenish themselves, they soon began to show traces of botulism.

Although most of the people who tried to make a go of it in the Salton Sea eventually gave up and moved on, a few hardy souls remained–possibly because no other place was strange enough to keep them–and the film checks in on them as well. We meet the aging nudist who sits by the road to greet people with a smile and much, much more. There is a man who claims to be doing the Lord’s bidding by building an enormous mountain out of mud and paint. Then there is the Hungarian Revolution refugee known as Hunky Daddy–let me just say that if Elvis Presley were alive today and a Hungarian refugee, he would be Hunky Daddy. Thanks to their efforts, interest in saving the Salton Sea was revived in the 1990's and even found a champion in newly elected congressman Sonny Bono. “Unfortunately, he went skiing,” as one resident puts it, and the renewed interest soon peters out and a series of shady deals involving water rights threatens the very existence of the Salton Sea itself–if this is allowed to happen, and many fear that it will because of lack of interest, the lake that never should have existed could wind up having a disastrous effect on the surrounding area (unless the idea of a powerful stench and a constant alkali dust storm bearing down on Palm Springs doesn’t bother you that much.)

Directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” doesn’t exactly break new cinematic ground–it is the usual hodgepodge of talking heads and ironic stock footage stitched together by a hip soundtrack and it is, in the end, essentially preaching to the converted. That said, it is a smart and engrossing film that illustrates in sharp and convincing detail how ecological accidents can mushroom into full-blown disasters as long as people are willing to turn a blind eye to their ongoing impact. At the same time, it is also hugely entertaining as well in the way that it allows the Salton stalwarts to display their various eccentricities without any sense of condescension on the part of the filmmakers. Early in the film, John Waters announces that this is a film “where utopia and apocalypse meet to do a dirty tango” and damned if it doesn’t pretty much live up to that promise.

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