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Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
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by Lybarger

"As enjoyable to watch is it is difficult to describe."
4 stars

In less than 80 minutes, directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer manage to give viewers an important history lesson, a warning about environmental tampering and a cast of unforgettable people. The two entertain audiences with a complicated but surreal true story that masters of the weird David Lynch or John Waters would have trouble matching. “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea” often feels less like a documentary and more like a trek across an alien landscape.

With that in mind, it’s no wonder Metzler and Springer were able to get Waters to drolly narrate this engrossing and sometimes funny look at an enormous body of water in the middle of the California desert that once carried the title, “California Riviera.”

If nature had its way, this enormous salt water lake known as the Salton Sea would probably not exist. It was “created” when irrigation projects along the Colorado leaked, in 1905. The run-off ended up filling a large depression with water.

What had been a mistake seemed like a miracle for a while because the nutrient-rich sea became a home for millions of tilapia. From the 1950s through 1970s, the Salton Sea became a tourist attraction that matched Palm Springs to the north. What had once been empty desert land was now prime real estate.

That changed in 1976 and 1977 when a pair of floods and some tropical storms wrecked many of the seaside buildings. A botulism outbreak with the fish and the birds during the 90s didn’t help either.

Metzler and Springer do a great job at making the environmental situation not only easy to understand but at times downright fascinating. It’s not only easy to see why the area has collapsed but why so little has been done to correct it.

Curiously a small group of residents remain, and some still even eat the fish from the sea. With businesses leaving the area and little being done to address the Salton Sea’s contamination, a hardy group of individuals remain.

Following these folks around is what gives “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea” its charm. When the filmmakers present the wreckage of once thriving marinas and resort homes, you’d think only crazy people would still live there.

But Metzler and Springer have genuine affection for the people they cover, so viewers grow to love these folks even if their lives seem bizarre.

There’s Laszlo Orosz, a Hungarian immigrant known as “Hunky Daddy” who’s the undeclared mayor of seaside community Bombay Beach. He performs some creepy acts in front of children that have to be seen to be believed, but he also fought heroically against the Soviets when they crushed the Hungarian resistance in the 1950s.

My favorite of the residents is a sculptor named Leonard Knight who has spent the last several years painting and sculpting a giant mound called Salvation Mountain. It looks like a giant bloom in the middle of the desert is about the only active tourist spot in the area. Knight considers the massive construction an act of worship, and his warm gentle demeanor is reflected in every inch of the site.

The surf-like music from the Friends of Dean Martinez and Waters’ narration give the film a wry tone, but the documentary is thankfully free of snark. The love and regret the residents have of their home is gradually shared by viewers. While the wreckage of the buildings and the images of sick and dying animals are disturbing, portions of the area are still beautiful, and the biologists who operate in the area warn that greater ecological disasters could happen to neighboring Palm Springs if the Salton Sea is allowed to fester.

Incidentally, Palm Springs was the home of the Sea’s unlikely but effective champion. Former singer and later Republican Congressman Sonny Bono tirelessly fought for the region, but his accidental death led to copious lip service from political allies and little action.

The complex and fascinating subject matter in “Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea” is a little short changed by the short running time, but DVD offers a segment on Leonard Knight that lets viewers see more of him. It also includes a promotional film from the Sea’s heyday, that while rather corny, indicates why veteran residents long for the past.

“Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea” can best be described as “An Inconvenient Truth” with a stronger sense of humor, a keen sense of the cost of neglect and with a cast of characters who’d make the residents of Twin Peaks seem mundane.

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originally posted: 10/09/07 14:43:41
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2004 Slamdance Film Festival. For more in the 2004 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Portland Film Festival For more in the 2006 Portland Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

1/27/09 Shaun Wallner Well made. 4 stars
11/15/06 William Goss Effortlessly fascinating from beginning to end. 4 stars
8/02/05 Nora Smith Fantastic 5 stars
12/17/04 J. Paul Surreal and very funny, unlike anything else. 5 stars
12/09/04 Erik Fleming Interesting and funny 4 stars
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