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Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (Chris Mtzler, Jeff Springer)

Plagues & Pleasures


There is a place that time has forgotten, “where utopia and an apocalypse meet to dance a dirty tango. It’s a special place…that draws a unique group of outsiders, looking for an awfully beautiful life, on the edge of a beautifully awful paradise.”

This is the Salton Sea, which lies approximately 50 miles south of Palm Springs.

Is this a paradise and a place to escape, or a place where dreams and hopes came to die? It all depends on who you ask. As much as the beautiful and horrid collide, so do the opinions of what this place actually is, a place to boat, fish and swim with healing elements, or a sewer ripe with botulism, dead fish, garbage and disease.

This documentary takes a look at the former rival to Palm Springs, the Salton Sea, which was once dubbed the fishing capital of the country. It takes a look at this man-made disaster that started in the early 1900s with no forethought in mind, diverting water to this area of Imperial Valley that resulted in a year-round farming area. One engineering screw up after another, along with the ever-so-popular penchant for greed, became a constant curse for this area of California and its populous.

The heyday of the Salton Sea was definitely the ‘50s, where a future was sold by the lot full, literally, both as a weekend jaunt for Los Angeles stars or those looking to retire in luxury with the yacht club nearby. But Mother Nature had something else in mind, which conflicted with the humanized plans and projections. After a series of storms that came to the Imperial Valley, the sea flooded, and it was all downhill from there.

With John Waters as narrator telling this tale of the Salton Sea and its surrounding areas, the story is ripe with his signature sarcasm and wit, mixing with fact and history of how this paradise lost came to be. It’s as interesting to learn about how those who chose to stay live and stay optimistic about their future, which is somehow a very American trait—to forge for the American dream, even in the midst of adversity from outsiders and the media, who deem it as a “toxic margarita.”

This is even found in the unofficial mayor of Bombay Beach, an immigrant from Hungary who escaped from his country in 1956 after the Russian invasion. Then there is the man who expresses his devotion to God through his daily dedication to building his Salvation Mountain, which lies outside of Niland.

But it seems like the rest of America has forgotten about this piece of land that goes for pennies compared to sky high real estate prices of California. Some have tried to bring the Salton Sea back to its splendor, including Sonny Bono with his efforts in congress, geared to turn around what he called “an environmental disaster” and instead wanted to make it into a “recreational mecca.” When he died, others wanted to keep his plans and efforts alive, including the creation of the Salton Sea Authority and the Salton Sea Restoration Act.

The U.S. Forest and Wildlife Service also do their best to deal with cleaning up the areas, which also includes combating botulism that is ripe in the area given the conditions. Unfortunately, that is the only action that has taken place. Government red tape has ruled the day once again, and the ideas and plans that had the same energy and hope that those before them had decades ago have led to a dead end once again.

It’s also the age old problem of pushing out Mother Nature to make way for human’s progress, which has left little to no wetlands in California, leaving the Salton Sea as the only major body of water left for birds to live.

One from the Wildlife Service makes his own analogy of the situation, which of course, relates to what motivates most people, companies and agencies to act, “Nothing is going to happen with the Salton Sea until people realize that they’re going to make money or it’s going to hurt them in their pocketbooks,” and that Palm Springs and all the rich who live there will feel the affects of the Salton Sea if it fails.

Maybe this is a movie that one former movie star needs to watch with cigar in hand. For the rest of us, this is the feature film for Doc Night this Thursday at Tivoli, hosted by Denver Post film critic, Lisa Kennedy. Co-director Chris Metzler will also be present to discuss the making of the film and answer questions from the audience.


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