Movie Review: Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

By Joan K. Widdifield, Psy.D
Movie Magazine International
The only problem I've had with the new documentary PLAGUES AND PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA is remembering the title. But besides that, PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA is one of those docs that you will never forget, because of what you learn about this unique place, and the people you get to meet. PLAGUES & PLEASURES is part well-researched environmental tragedy story, and part oddball study. The subculture and its characters at the Salton Sea seem to have evolved separately from any outside influence -- the equivalent of the unique genetic mutations found on the Galapagos Islands. The film is like an ethnography, chronicling an exotic people whose way of life and environment is in flux and may not be the same a few years down the line.

The Salton Sea, a brackish lake located an hour south of Palm Springs, is considered one of America’s worst ecological disasters. It was created by an engineering error in 1905. After engineering problems were addressed, it was developed into an upscale vacation destination and became known as the "California Riviera" in the 1950's. It was the stylish spot for the rich and famous to fish, water ski, and play. After a series of hurricanes and floods that ruined many of the structures, the Salton Sea was essentially abandoned. Now, it is run down and many structures are destroyed and half-covered by water; millions of fish and thousands of birds die regularly. Sonny Bono championed the cause, but since his death, not much has been accomplished.

Co-directed and photographed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, PLAGUES & PLEASURES focuses on the hardy and colorful people who have remained at the Salton Sea, and some who arrived long after it was a viable place to live. The newer, younger residents moved there because of a desire for freedom and isolation. There's the welfare mother who wants her children to be safe from the L.A. streets, the Landman who wants to make his fortune when the real estate values turn around, and the devout Christian who has built a mountain out of mud with sacred painted messages. The common denominator of all the inhabitants is their love for the place.

The directors' transcendent sense of irony comes through in the interviews. I could hardly believe what I was seeing as the cast of characters unfolded. One of my favorites is the peace-loving nudist who stands by the side of the road and waves to passersby. Another is the resident who serves as a sort of a Greek chorus, offering a running commentary. The music by "Friends of Dean Martinez" band expresses wit and the sense of being in a peculiar land in a sort of time warp. John Waters as the narrator is a terrific choice; just the sound of his voice invokes his dark eccentric characters, achieving the perfect pitch for presenting the Salton Sea phenomenon with its marvelously odd people.

After saying it enough, I can now remember the title. PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA is not only a cautionary environmental tale, but a sublime adventure into an uber quirky world.

For Movie Magazine, this is Joan Widdifield. © 2/15/06
More Information:
Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Co-directed and photographed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer.