In the heart of Southern California, away from the hustle and bustle of the major cities and their torrential troubles, lies the Salton Sea. Once a potential Mecca for the rich and adventurous to unwind in a distinctive location away from the more landlocked charms of nearby Palm Springs, the Sea has since fallen from grace, left for dead as an "ecological timebomb" without a political champion, but teeming with frustrated residents.
"Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" is a feisty documentary pouring over the rusted details of the area, taking a closer look at a great American vacation and residential destination that missed the culture train to glory. It's an absorbing, frightening witness to nature's final hours, filled with strangely enlightening accounts of life on a lifeless terrain.
Directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer don't approach the curse of the Sea with much venom. Instead, they've created a documentary of incredible sympathy and information, hoping the viewer will take with them a new appreciation for a section of California neglected for so long, it might as well not even be marked on the maps anymore. The lack of anger is stunning when you consider the socioeconomic isolation and political corruption that has shattered the Sea, but "Plagues & Pleasures" is far more interested in capturing the mood of the area instead of fighting for justice with hot-blooded recklessness.
Atmosphere is what "Plagues & Pleasures" excels in, introducing the viewer to the fractured mindset that's overwhelmed the area. Covering approximately 376 square miles, the Sea was created by accident, refusing to evaporate in the desert conditions due to its high salinity and constant rebirth of sea life. It's just one of the many wonders of California, yet it's never received the attention or love from state funds, leaving it a vacation hotspot footnote of the 60s and 70s.
So who still lives in this polluted, ramshackle community? It seems appropriate the filmmakers convinced John Waters to narrate the documentary since the characters found in "Plagues & Pleasures" would fit right in with his finest selections of cult trash. Once proposed to be a retirement destination during the Sea's finest hours, the residents are mostly elderly, unable to move due to lack of housing money, complacent with the deterioration of the Sea area since, well, they won't be around much longer anyway.
We also meet local plot dealers looking to skim money any way they possibly can from an ailing locale, young African-American neighbors who are delighted to be out of the troubles urban Los Angeles would routinely invite, a 90-year-old leathery nudist with a message of peace, a landscape artist continuing his work building a mountain-sized valentine to Jesus ("Salvation Mountain"), and a Hungarian refugee who adores beer, women, and the chance to pull his pants down for a camera. It's one enormous group of bored, irritated citizens at the Salton Sea, watching the land wear down with each passing year, looking to each other for a daily dose of homespun entertainment.
Hope is in short supply at the Sea, with the documentary taking a hard look at the pollution epidemic, the fallen dreams of radical development, horrific problems with a diseased avian population, and the apathy of local politicians to nurture the Sea back to life. A short exploration of Palm Springs mayor (and ex-Mr. Cher) Sonny Bono's fight to reverse the gloom of the Sea is major portion of the film, but his death severed a majority of his blue-sky plans. Metzler and Springer underline this disappointment with disturbing clarity; the residents, once lifted with dreams of financial stability and renewed seaside beauty now back to square one with a state government that possesses little idea how to utilize the Sea's potential to alleviate the growing water concern in California.
With a full-frame presentation, "Plagues & Pleasures" looks like a standard indie documentary, blessed with a colorful subject that brings the visuals to life. Shot on video, the DVD looks good for what the directors had to work with, pulling together a striking set of Sea landmarks and well-staged photography.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is a modest effort, yet retains a lovely scope of nature sounds and soundtrack selections. Interviews and music are nicely separated.
First up is a feature-length audio commentary from Salton Sea locals Norm Niver and Steve Horvitz. The track is extremely dry, but the two men provide needed background information on some of the events in the film, explaining neighborhood histories of the participants and the development of the land. Norm and Steve are new to the commentary world, leaving the track difficult to sit through at times, but patience is rewarded with some nuggets of info that augment the feature's depth.
Also providing a commentary track are directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, who embark on a livelier discussion of "Plagues." Where Niver and Horvitz provide the insider look at the Sea community, the filmmakers have the benefit of being outsiders, dishing out production stories and detailed explanations behind the interview sequences with the colorful locals, while also urging listeners to visit the Sea for themselves.
"Deleted Scenes" (13 minutes) offers more dispiriting footage of the Sea community in disarray. This collection of deleted moments would only reiterate established themes if left in the feature film, but viewed separately, the snippets offer newfound depth to the neighborhood, even tracking one local's retirement afterlife.
"Lost Interviews" (12 Minutes) provides a chance to catch up with several of the locals years after the main body of the film was shot.
"Leonard & the Mountain" (11 minutes) appears to be the genesis of "Plagues," from directors Springer and Metzler. A short film about Leonard Knight, the man building the "Salvation Mountain," the brief documentary benefits from its specificity and bonus Knight footage.
"Miracle in the Desert" (13 minutes) is a vacation promo reel from the mid-60s extolling the wonders of Salton Sea real estate. Presented in all of its scratched, aged 8mm glory, it's a treat to watch this retro piece of salesmanship.
"From Tucson to the Salton Sea" (8 minutes) explores the thoughts and history of Arizona band Friends of Dean Martinez, who provide the evocative music for "Plagues."
"Fruit of the Vine" (4 minutes) is a clip from the skateboarding cult hit. A colorful 8mm journey to the Salton Sea to skate the abandoned landscape, the supplement offers footage of the area from a different perspective, while also revealing a frightening insect infestation.
"LSD a Go Go" (10 minutes) is a bizarre, somewhat unexplained short film on the dangers of psychedelic drugs. It's funny, interesting, and campy, but I'm a little lost how this connects to the feature.
A theatrical trailer is included, along with looks at "Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back," "Air Guitar Nation," "A Crude Awakening," and "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill."
"Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea" accomplishes the ideal for any documentary: it takes you to a time and place either unimaginable or unattainable. The film paints a disconcerting portrait of a corroded land, inhabited by people too encased in fear and poverty to make a move to a better life, preferring to ride out the roulette wheel of the Salton Sea. If the film is any indication of the future for this forgotten tourist magnet, it doesn't look promising for both man and Mother Nature.