The great salt mistake, adored then neglected

November 02, 2007|By Michael Sragow

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast water shortage and the California wildfires, Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea (opening today for one week at the Charles) provides a funky, terrifying and improbably funny demonstration of environmental neglect leading to ecological disaster.

Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer have made a stranger-than-fiction documentary about a freshwater desert lake that turned into a salty inland sea and threatens to become a giant sewer or source of alkaline clouds.

The movie screened two years ago at the Maryland Film Festival but comes to the Charles with updates and fresh graphics. On the remixed soundtrack, Baltimore's John Waters brings a welcome touch of nonchalance and drollery to his reading of the succinct narration. There's no need for melodramatic or satiric underlining. The story of the Salton Sea and its eclectic shoreline population overflows with real-life campiness - also humor, soul and anguish. Because of Metzler and Springer's appetite for raw experience, what could have been a depressing horror movie is wildly funny and enraging. It's the rare documentary with something for everyone.

At one time you could say the same thing about the Salton Sea. It grew out of what was left when the Colorado River over-ran a rickety dam and flooded California's Imperial and Coachella valleys in 1905. This man-made catastrophe combined with the desert's mineral deposits to create a one-of-a-kind oasis in an arid landscape.

Men who sensed resort potential turned the sea into a breeding ground for Pacific Ocean fish and a magnet for fishermen and water sports in general - in a key archival image of Eisenhower-era hip, lines of water-skiers wave merrily at the camera. As a stop on the Pacific Flyway, it also became a center for bird-watchers.

But the movie's fabulous '50s period footage fades into contemporary images of die-hards, misfits and eccentrics living in an insane and eroding environment. Tranquil retirees mingle with outsize personalities like a primitive religious artist painting a tribute to Jesus on a mound of mud, or a former Hungarian freedom fighter who serves as the unofficial mayor of Bombay Beach and goes by the name "Hunky Daddy" (he loves all women and, in his tightie whities, moons the camera).

The population is all over the place, and so is the state of the Salton Sea, thanks to yet another collision of human foible and natural caprice. A half-century ago, high-powered entrepreneurs took notice of this cheap vacationland and began erecting yacht clubs and hotels meant to rival those of Palm Springs (less than an hour away). But unprecedented rainfall caused the Salton Sea to flood and ruin shoreline properties, drowning hopes of its becoming the "California Riviera."

Even after a small comeback in the '70s, the irrigation runoff from Imperial Valley farms polluted the sea with pesticides and minerals. Its waters became a quarter saltier than the Pacific's, killing off most fish species, except the tilapia, and thus many fish-eating birds. (Ironically, it still remains one of the best spots in California to bird-watch or catch fish.) No plan to save the Salton Sea has gained traction, and if cities like San Diego succeed in buying the agricultural waters that keep it (barely) alive, it may eventually dry up, creating a new regional ecology that could leave Palm Springs vulnerable to dust storms.

Over the phone from San Francisco, co-director Metzler says he and Springer discovered that environmental activists once considered the Salton Sea "a man-made mistake that didn't deserve to exist. I'm sure some of them even harbored the hope that if the sea fails and Palm Springs is ruined, it would teach rich people that they couldn't live wherever they want. But in the last year, the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club have changed their position and recognized its value.

"One thing the Salton Sea has suffered from is ignorance, and one thing we wanted to do was to bring you to a place you weren't aware of and make you want to jump in a car and take a road trip to see it. The film is far from a promotional tour, but it may function that way for hipsters and people with an affection for the offbeat.

"When we do Q&As after the film, we offer to give people directions to any place they see, including Hunky Daddy's house. And now, a couple of times a week, I'll get pictures from people who have gone out to take pictures of Hunky Daddy and the other people in the film. Knowing they went to check the place out for themselves - that just puts the biggest smile on my face."

Show or a no-show?

If he can clear away a conflicting obligation (an indie dream - a money-paying job), Springer will attend the Charles' screenings of Plagues & Pleasures in the Salton Sea and answer questions afterward. He was definitely going to come next week, but the Charles moved the movie up.

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