Texas Documentary Tour
'Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea'
By Anne S. Lewis, Fri., Dec. 9, 2005
Wednesday, Dec. 14, 7pm
Alamo Drafthouse Downtown
Co-director Chris Metzler in attendance
It's hard to imagine how the hopes and dreams of so many from so many divergent walks of life could converge upon one fetid man-made lake in the California desert. The Salton Sea, created accidentally by an engineering error in 1905, has had, to say the least, a checkered past. Fifty years post its unintended creation, a dramatic increase in salinity transformed the 35-mile long, 15-mile wide freshwater lake into a small inland sea. Stocked with fish, it evolved into a primo sport-fishing, bird-watching, and water-skiing paradise; by the Fifties, it was a premier working-class vacationer's destination, attracting more visitors than Yosemite National Park.
Then came the Hollywood glitterati and the speculators, who saw Salton Lake through French Riviera glasses: The resort-hotel and yacht-club era had seemingly arrived. Alas, hard times in the form of a real-estate boom that never took and a series of extreme weather events had disastrous consequences for the sea's ecology and its human habitation. An over-the-top salinity 25% saltier than the Pacific Ocean would be its ecological undoing, making it an attractive residence only to those who either love the smell of dead fish and birds and cheap land values or those still optimistic that the good times are just around the corner.
Directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea, their first feature film (in a style reminiscent of Ellen Spiro's Roam Sweet Home), opens up this quirky world of the Salton Sea's remaining inhabitants. Metzler describes the film's production as "one huge acid trip" shot in probably the world's most difficult shooting environment. "It was 120 degrees in the summer, because it's the desert," he says, adding that the camera kept melting in the sun, and the lens was almost impossible to keep clean with all of the dust and sand. "But, because there's also this huge body of water, it's incredibly humid, so, within five minutes of getting out of the car, you're drenched, attacked by mosquitoes, and hit by the overwhelming stench of dead fish."
So, in this whacked-out outpost of civilization, what would Metzler pick as the most outrageous of outrageous experiences as he and Springer trained their melting camera and mic on the denizens of the Salton Sea?
"OK, I'd have to go with the time that religious folk artist Leonard Knight, who's built a mountain out of trash in the middle of the desert, randomly started speaking in tongues, a fact we only discovered 20 minutes later when he resumed talking in English. We sure didn't know what was happening, but there was something strangely apocalyptic about it, as the wind immediately kicked up in strength and the sun was setting in this glorious orange haze."
And who would be the narrator par excellence for this film? None other than the inimitable John Waters, clearly in his element here. "We'd always imagined John to be the ideal narrator for the film, but weren't able to get to him through traditional channels before the film screened at Slamdance," Metzler recalls. "Then, by pure chance, we bumped into a friend who said she knew Waters and offered to show him the film and ask him if he'd want to be the narrator. Waters called a few days later and said he loved the film, and we added his narration ... last June. Waters introduced our film at the Provincetown Film Festival, saying that even though he'd never been there, he imagined the Salton Sea to be as if the people of Baltimore had moved to Palm Springs."