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Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Directed and Photographed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer; Narrated by John Waters; Music by Friends of Dean Martinez

Apr 27, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Picture the biggest, most rundown waterfront trailer park retirement community imaginable, fill it with elderly eccentrics, slap on some Vegas-style kitsch and you’ve got a good idea of the Salton Sea, the Imperial Valley, Calif. locale outside of San Diego and Palm Springs that once was a booming resort town.

Appropriately narrated by John Waters, with music from Friends of Dean Martinez, Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea is a feature-length documentary centered on Southern California’s once great Salton Sea resort area. Accidentally created in 1905 after re-routing runoff from the Colorado River, the so-called Salton Sea (actually one of California’s largest saline lakes) and its surrounding communities thrived as a tourist destination in the ’50s and ’60s. But after a while tourism declined and the lake’s water level rose, flooding out whole towns and resort areas. A desert basin with no place for runoff, the Salton Sea’s water level varies regularly and has been the site of massive wildlife casualties—mostly fish and birds. What remains today is the equivalent of a waterfront junkyard, populated by a cast of (mostly elderly) eccentrics. But most of those who still live there are immensely passionate about the area, many having stayed in the hopes of some sort of regional renaissance, either via tourism, business, residential markets or any combination of those. Needless to say, it has not come.

The Salton Sea is clearly dear to the hearts of the locals and the filmmakers, but that passion rarely translates beyond the screen. Salinity and pollution problems still plague the sea, but despite grass roots efforts, which are only lightly touched upon in the film, residents in the area have had difficulty finding support for their cause. The sea and its denizens once had a champion in Sonny Bono, whose congressional district encompassed the Salton Sea, but when Bono died the area lost its potential big-name savior. Bono’s wife Mary represents the district now, but has failed to drum up the interest in revitalizing it that her late husband had.

Shot on video and co-written and directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, the doc makes good use of stock footage, including some kitsch promotional film from the early ’60s and some footage of the 1956 Hungarian revolution (don’t ask). There’s also some nice usage of a scrapbook-style graphic to display vintage press clippings and photos that otherwise might not have had a place in the film.

Plagues & Pleasures is being released theatrically as a 73-minute feature, and a TV friendly 57-minute cut will air on Sundance Channel in June. There’s plenty here that could have been trimmed and the film probably will be more effective in its shorter version. While the filmmakers have a few solid moments scattered throughout, many important elements—the creation of the Salton Sea, its heyday and potential revitalization via Sonny Bono—are shortchanged in favor of extended interviews with the locals. What effectively could have been an Inconvenient Truth also-ran ends up as largely a cavalcade of crazies reminiscing on the good old days.

Author rating: 5/10

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