Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Directed by: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer
Narrated by: John Waters
Having lived only fifteen minutes away from Niagara Falls my entire life, I’m pretty familiar with the idea of a tourist trap. What’s more interesting than six million cubic feet of rushing water? Well how about the WWE Museum, Burger King, the Casino and Dracula’s Castle? Luckily, the falls itself has remained intact and environmentally protected; even if it’s surroundings have had a major face lift. In the case of California’s Salton Sea, an accidental man-made lake turned world class tourist attraction ultimately became one of America’s worst ecological disasters ever. But what of the people who live there? Well they’re probably best summed up by one of their own. “The people out here are very forgiving. They have to be to live this way. Adaptable…face it as it comes up, take it day to day.”
The Salton Sea came about thanks to improper management of irrigation routes from the Colorado River, causing the ‘Salton Sink’ to fill up with water, creating a giant accidental man-made lake in the middle of the desert. In the 1950’s, the location was pushed as an ultimate tourist attraction, boasting fancy resorts, clean beaches and some of the best fishing in the country. It was a top destination for the rich and famous. Unfortunately the good times didn’t last thanks to a series of uncontrollable acts of God (hurricanes, floods) and unusually high levels of salt in the lake, which leads to thousands of dead fish polluting the water each and every year. Now, over fifty years later, the Salton Sea is a stagnant, nasty body of water surrounded by half-abandoned towns that resemble something out of a Kevin Costner post-apocalyptic epic. In fact, upon watching this film I recognized some of the dilapidated architecture from Werner Herzog’s ‘science-fiction-docu-drama’ The Wild Blue Yonder, in which the ruins doubled as an abandoned town built by an alien civilization. Hardly a compliment.
At first ‘Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea’ had me feeling a little hesitant. Maybe it was John Water’s narration that had me wondering at what level this film would be exploiting the Salton Sea and its inhabitants. Luckily, my worries were completely unfounded. When directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer aren’t introducing us to the films colourful characters, they’re analyzing what exactly what went wrong from an environmental point of view, bringing this film to a whole new unexpected level. In fact, there are even two cuts; the ‘theatrical version’ and the ‘environmental version’. The film makes it very clear that the Salton Sea still needs help. Metzler and Springer conduct interviews with residents of the surrounding towns of Bombay Beach, Niland and Salton City. We’re also introduced to the ‘Sonny Bono Wildlife Refuge’. Bono, a major supporter of the restoration of the Salton Sea, had vowed to help clean up the lake and restore the town. But we all know how that ended. The Salton Sea may be polluted as hell, but in this instance swimming its waters would’ve been safer than skiing.
For me, the major draw of this film was the people. I went in with Errol Morris’ ‘Vernon, Florida’ in mind, and although stylistically these two films are worlds apart, they do share common themes that I found equally intriguing. Living in such a devastated area might not be so bad once you realize the amount of freedom you have. Of course, the Salton Sea naturally draws in some pretty unique characters. There’s ‘Hunky Daddy’, the unofficial mayor of Bombay Beach. A wild, rambunctious, outspoken and horny old man with a Hungarian accent so thick, it requires subtitling. He starts off as some great comic relief, but as his interview progresses, he ends up telling some of the most interesting stories, talking about his days as a freedom fighter in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. “Yeah. I am proud of it. Fuck yeah.” I guess Hunky Daddy’s young at heart attitude simply compensates for adolescence spent fighting a revolution. Then there’s Donald Scheidler, an old man who refuses to wear clothes. He stands on the side of the road, completely nude, next to a ‘Love Peace’ sign decorated with an American flag. “I don’t want sex with anybody, I don’t want money, food, clothing…just…I want friends. People who can let me be me.” Finally, there’s the amazing story of ‘Salvation Mountain’, located outside the town of Niland. This is a brightly coloured, man-made mountain constructed from plaster, dirt, barrels and even buses, all topped with a giant cross and LOVE emblazoned in red across the front. Leonard Knight has spent years working on this piece of environmental art, and hopes it will one day become the attraction that just might turn things around for the Salton Sea. “I just believe that God really built this mountain. I didn’t.”
Metzler and Springer’s Salton Sea makes Michael Moore’s Flint Michigan look like Walt Disney’s Tomorrowland, yet somehow I don’t sense any manipulation or misrepresentation. This area is in need of some serious help. The only downside to such a major environmental restoration would be the threat towards the unique and unusually charming legend of the Salton Sea and its people. Plagues and Pleasure’s of the Salton Sea walks the line of respecting the town’s quirky residents and their unusual lifestyle whilst fighting for a change that may ultimately turn this interesting piece of Americana back into another tourist trap.