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Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
New Video / Docurama
2004 / Color/ 1:33 flat full frame / 73 min. / Street Date September 25, 2007 / 26.95
Narrated by John Waters
Cinematography Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer
Film Editor Jeff Springer
Original Music Friends of Dean Martinez
Produced by Chris Metzler
Written and Directed by Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Documentary film production has exploded of late, with a surfeit of shows on every subject known to man. The really worthwhile docus are distinguished by good research on subjects that transcend their own context. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea relates the unusual history of an 'accidental' inland sea, once a Mecca for recreation but now an environmental and economic sinkhole. From beneath the hard facts emerges a sobering lesson: The appalling condition of the Salton Sea is a prediction of disasters to come.

Metzler and Springer offer bouncy graphics, a variety of modern music and the voiceover services of John Waters, but know better than to hype their subject. The Salton Sea is weird enough. Backed by animated maps and old photos, Waters explains how poorly planned irrigation from the Colorado river in 1905 accidentally diverted the Colorado river, resulting in a flooding of Biblical proportions. Many residents of Southern California remember the area's heyday of fishing, water skiing and all night parties back in the 1960s, but since the late 1970s the Sea has dropped off the radar, as if it never existed. Well, it's still there, and it isn't pretty.

Old promotional films show the Sea's development in the late 1950s, with smiling citizens enjoying the sport fishing and boating opportunities. Fifty miles south of ritzy Palm Springs, the Sea became a thriving playground for the middle class. Flotillas of cars towing boats made their way to new motels, and bars and yacht clubs filled with happy patrons. The minimum requirement for a weekend away from Los Angeles was a tank of gas (at 28 cents a gallon) and a few six-packs of beer.

Most of the local housing was of the trailer-park variety, and fast-buck land developers mapped out huge subdivisions in the hopes of making the Sea into the next big thing for vacation and retirement homes. Sewers and power lines were installed, but just when the ink was drying on the land deeds, disaster struck. The lake's shoreline grew and shrank with seasonal flooding and unchecked runoff from Imperial Valley irrigation, which regularly took much more water than it needed from the Colorado. Flooding wiped out some of the more expensive recreational facilities, and when the water receded investors were greeted by acres of mud flats covered with tons of rotting fish. The salinity of the Sea rose dramatically, resulting in more massive fish kill-offs.

Thirty years later, the resort area is now a scary graveyard of rust and ruin, a gigantic urban dump suitable as a backdrop for a post-apocalyptic fantasy. Plagues and Pleasures interviews a Real Estate broker still in operation, who sells few lots even at rock-bottom prices. Some locals are hilariously frank when they say there's nothing at all wrong with the area ... except the god-awful stench of millions of rotting fish. State and local wildlife and conservation authorities claim that the Sea could be saved if politicians took an interest. Without the promise of fast profits, nobody wants to pick up the tab for cleaning up the lake and properly managing its ecology. The agriculture industry uses it as a dumping ground and San Diego has nabbed its share of the Colorado water supply. If allowed to dry up, the lake will become an alkali dust bowl. A toxic stench will drift toward Palm Springs every time the wind blows.

Ex-rocker Sonny Bono brought hope to the area with plans for a major rescue and redevelopment program, and news films show Newt Gingrich promising happy days ahead. Bono's unfortunate accidental death in 1998 crippled that program, and it's now predicted that the Sea has only ten years to live.

The docu also covers the human casualties of the depressed area. Small colonies of retirees too poor to move elsewhere watch as vital services shut down. There are no stores and the one grocery closes at 6pm. Some senior citizens are irrationally positive about the lake's prospects. One of the last diners closes because its 91 year-old owner no longer has the energy to keep it running. Welfare families live in trailers and lament the lack of anything for children to do. But some go on camera to say that it's better than living in Los Angeles, where their kids are likely to become victims of violence.

The area is also the home of last resort for a number of eccentrics and all 'round weird-os. One former Hungarian 'freedom fighter' lives in a veritable junkyard and does nothing but drink beer all day. Confronted by a camera, he lauds the wonders of America. A desert rat with benign religious ideas spends his retirement working in painted plaster and adobe lettering, reshaping a small hill into a giant celebration of God. Another ancient fringe dweller celebrates life by standing naked at the side of the road next to an American flag, waving at passing cars. He loves his 'freedom' and only puts his shorts on when the Highway Patrolmen give him a hard time.

This forgotten pocket of decay and weirdness is only a couple of freeway hours from Los Angeles. Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is funny and compassionate, but it shows us a future that could befall any American community that suddenly becomes economically unsound, or politically inconvenient. Civilization's ratty edges are sometimes frightening to contemplate.

Docurama's DVD of Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is presented in a colorful flat encoding. The filmmakers have a good eye for the Salton Sea's grotesque ruins and bizarre denizens. One audio commentary offers the filmmakers' self-evaluation and a second track pairs two of the Salton Sea locals, Norm Niver and Steve Horvitz. A selection of deleted scenes appears to be clips from an earlier, longer screening cut. Several more uncut short subjects shamelessly promote the Salton Sea as the next Lake Tahoe or Palm Springs, and one piece looks at the film's composer-musicians. Less germane is an old anti-LSD film re-edited to implicate present day politicians in various nefarious activities. A trailer and filmmaker bios round out the package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two commentaries, short films promoting Salton Sea recreation, a docu on the musicians heard in the movie, trailer.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 24, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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