(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The Salton Sea is a man-made monstrosity. Engineering mistakes created the Salton Sea, turned it temporarily into a tourist attraction, and then made it one of the ugliest places in America. The documentary looks at the history of the region and the people trapped in this environmental nightmare. This film is fascinating like a slow motion road accident. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

My introduction to the Salton Sea was a 1957 sci-fi monster movie THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD. In that film an earthquake accidentally releases giant prehistoric mollusks into the Salton Sea. A Navy research base next to the sea has to eliminate the menace. It is a natural disaster. In fact, it probably is no worse than what really happened in the history of the Salton Sea. But most of the problems around the Salton Sea are of human creation.

The sea was created by an engineering miscalculation in 1905. A dam had stood between the Colorado River and the Salton Sink in the Imperial Valley of Southern California. When the dam was washed away 90% of the flow of the Colorado was accidentally diverted and filled the basin known as the Salton Sink. Suddenly California had a new largest lake. The area between Palm Springs and the Mexican border became a popular recreation area in the 1950s. It was even nicknamed "California's Riviera". However it has suffered a string of disasters, mostly man-made. Runoff from the surrounding agriculture has made the lake polluted and very saline. The net result is a landscape of extraordinary repulsiveness. How did the Salton area go from being California's water play-spot to this seemingly ravaged, post- holocaust environment? What sorts of people still live there and why? These are the subjects of a documentary by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. The visions of 1950s kitsch chic architecture hunkering in silt and decaying makes John Waters a very appropriate choice for the film's narrator.

In the course of the film the producers talk to many of the prominent people living on the fetid shores of the Salton Sea. These are people have become accustomed to the annual cycle that includes the salt forcing the oxygen out of water. On a regular basis this kills the fish that wash up on the shores in the tens of thousands carrying botulism that poisons the birds that feed on them. The film can only describe and not really convey the smell.

Among the residents of the area is Hunky Daddy. He was at one time a Hungarian freedom fighter, but has found his freedom by the Salton Sea where he rants in a thick accent, drinks beer, and pulls down his pants to embarrass passersby. Another local wanders the beach waving at people wearing only tennis shoes and a big smile. One resident has built Salvation Mountain, a hill of junk and old tires dedicated to Jesus. (Jesus was not available for comment.) This is a place where the tacky is about as good as it gets.

The film looks at three communities living around the Salton Sea. There is Bombay Beach (population 366), Niland (population 1143), and Salton City (population 978). These places are ugly and depressing. People seem to be trapped there because the land is inexpensive and so moving in is a lot easier than moving out. But the film makes one reflect: Is living in one of these communities really any worse than living in a cardboard box in a polluted Mexico City? Are these people really worse off than the homeless in Manhattan are? The fact is that a good deal of our planet has been made ugly and dismal. The Salton area is not unique even in the fact that they live among the sad vestiges of a past when their area was an attraction rather than a repulsion. Many ugly places show the remnants of a better older age. The strange collection of weirdos who try to make the best of life are not so unique as the film might suggest. So the world turns.

PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA is a sort of ecological morality tale. If its history is not unique, it is certainly bad enough. We learn that this place is an environmental disaster happening in slow motion. It is one of many that really need to be fixed and which probably will not. I rate the film a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits:

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper