Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 10 December 2007
Source Tilapia Films / New Video Group DVD
“Let me tell you about a place far beyond the sprawl of suburban American, where success and failure collide, and where Utopia and the Apocalypse meet to dance a dirty tango…”
With hints of influence from Errol Morris’ Vernon, Florida, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea refuses outright the label of crusade, claiming rather to be a “an intimate and eclectic portrait of a forgotten community searching for meaning and place.” In a sense this is true—Metzler and Springer have crafted a visual photograph of the men and women who live and work around the Salton Sea, one that alternates between humorous and heartbreaking and serves to capture a society on the edge of abandonment. But they’ve also cast a seventy-three-minute record of happiness and survival in the face of desertion.
In 1901, a lifeless span of California sand known as the Salton Sink caught the eyes of developers, who diverted water from the Colorado River and created lush farmland in the center of a vast desert—the Imperial Valley, as it came to be known. Four years later, freak rain flooded the silt-clogged Colorado, submerging the Salton Sink; only a collaboration between Southern Pacific Railroad and the United States government, and sixteen months of tireless work, could push the river back. Fifty years later, in Eisenhower-era America, the sea remained—alive, thirty-five miles long, and thriving in the arid terrain because of salty farm runoff, unable to evaporate. So it was transformed into a tourist mecca, where families came to swim and fish and race boats.
When tragedy struck in the form of agricultural runoff, tropical storms, and massive flooding, tourists fled in droves. Soon, news reports of dead fish – millions upon millions beached on the shore, glistening and lifeless beneath the California sun – circulated, year after year, throughout the country, drawing the concern of biologists and astonishment of everyone else. When birds began dying alongside fish, the lake was seen as nothing more than miles of paradoxical poison by observers. Interviewed by the filmmakers, a local named Paul Clement stands near his home and says of the annual occurrence:
“The population of the fish in here is stupendous, because the quantity of the fish, you see them dying all over the place, and yet you don’t lose none. They’re right back again the next year. There’s thousands and thousands of them, and you see them sometimes stacked two and three feet high on the beach when they have a die-off. But you go out fishing when the season hits and it’s full of fish.”
Other residents of the Salton Sea appear on-camera to discuss the fledgling real-estate market, the deepening racial diversity, the divisions from one fading lakeside town to another. And soon, the muddy leaves of this setting open to reveal glorious off-color flowers. Harold Gaston, the 91-year-old owner of the town’s most popular café, a soulless iconic diner. “Hunky Daddy,” a Hungarian revolutionary who relishes in the Salton’s Sea’s tranquil simplicity; the cameras find him perched in his fenced-off front lawn, where he empties can after can of beer while flashing his underwear to local women. Donald Scheidler, who stands naked at the interstate spreading a message of peace. And Leonard Knight, who professes to have had no education outside of his faith; he has, over the years, constructed a mud-and-straw mountain, which he paints every day using buckets of color given to him by townspeople. Salvation Mountain, as it’s called, is a glowing two-story monument to God, complete with large-lettered verse and a giant heart brushed onto the side.
When the lake became tainted, the surrounding communities became stuck in time. Whereas the rest of the country left the 1970s and moved, rather expectantly, into the Reagan era, residents surrounding Salton Sea watched their livelihoods disappear. Harold Gaston’s diner, a rusted VW bus half-swallowed by the every-growing lakeside, Donald Scheidler and his hopes for harmony—they’re all relics from a decade long gone, slowly degenerating into dust. Even as the lake’s evaporation threatens nearby palm-tree utopias, there is little done to aid them.
Help, though, did bend an open ear decades ago, in the form of a singer-turned-politician named Sonny Bono. Running for Congress, he pledged to help bring the Salton Sea back to its former glory, to clean up the water and encourage business; the area was his Camelot-in-waiting, and resurrecting the former hotspot would be his great triumph. But then, as the residents note, he went skiing. Promises since to bring awareness and assistance to the Salton Sea, including one by Bono’s widow, have largely gone nowhere. Today, there is a large monument to Bono’s cause standing in the shadow of a fetid beast.
For decades the Salton Sea’s landscape has drawn not only tourists but the eyes of Hollywood. John Farrow used the location as a substitute for the Pacific Theatre in Wake Island, and Arnold Laven’s 1957 horror film The Monster That Challenged the World was filmed on and around the lake; the water stretches far past the horizon, the beaches are clean, and life is plentiful, though the storyline is somewhat foreboding—a tremor opens up a cavern in the lakebed, and soon the waters become home to a vicious, mutated mollusk. Since then, an equally diverse array of filmmakers has taken up residence at the Salton Sea looking for symbolic images of sadness and isolation. Werner Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder, Michael Bay’s The Island, and Sean Penn’s recent Into the Wild all feature scenes filmed on location.
The narrator of this glinting gem is John Waters. His voice, cast over images of acute destitution, seems appropriate considering his history with the off-center and bizarre. Much of what we’re shown feels like a warped homage; a few scenes, in which the camera pans over abandoned Americana, are vaguely reminiscent of Desperate Living. But his narration, however well-written and perfectly delivered, cannot outdo the words of those living this film. The men and women and children of the Salton Sea exist in a society of their own, where they depend upon one another as good communities often do. They may belittle and offend, but they do so knowing that each neighbor carries something of the lake with them. It hints at a paradox essential to Metzler and Springer’s entire documentary: should the Salton Sea ever be healed, we will have gained back a magnificent ecosystem – one created, nourished, and destroyed by people – but lost a rich slice of American eccentricity and charm.