Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Dirs. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. 2004. 71mins. Documentary.
Narrated with morbid relish by John Waters, this witty doc chronicles the rise and ruination of the Salton Sea, a tiny inland ocean once promoted as “California’s Riviera” but now a festering, apocalyptically hideous ecological disaster zone.
The man-made sea was created by accident in the early 20th century when a poorly engineered irrigation project collapsed, flooding a lakebed that had been dry for centuries. The nearly 400-square-mile lake was expected to disappear, but snowmelt and agricultural runoff have perpetuated it, albeit at the cost of steadily rising salinity.
The sea was developed into a glamorous resort area in the 1950s, but in 1976 flooding caused by inept irrigation management destroyed local infrastructure and turned the lake into a reeking cesspool subject to cycles of algal bloom, bird and fish die-offs and biblical fly infestations.
It’s pretty much the armpit of the universe, but a handful of hardy and self-reliant souls choose to live there. Some are old-timers too stubborn to let a mere cataclysm push them around; others—including a leathery old nudist, a boozy Hungarian insurrectionist and a Jesus-freak folk artist—were drawn to the deserted lake by its frontierlike atmosphere of freedom. Saddest and funniest of all, however, are the real-estate speculators sitting on huge tracts of hell and ritually persuading themselves that renewed good times are just around the corner. (Opens Fri; Click here for showtimes.)—Cliff Doerksen