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plagues and pleasures on the salton sea Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea
Directed by:
Chris Metzler &
Jeff Springer
Cast: Sonny Bono, John Waters, Norm Niver, Petre Melvin

Written by:
Ricardo Barberini

August 13, 2007

Years ago, we read this fascinating article about how this huge lake was created in the middle of the desert by an accident. 


We have always had a romantic notion about this huge body of water and always wanted to visit it.  Alas, the opportunity never arose but we kept reading the news about it and were dismayed to hear about the demise of this once promising lake and the resort around it.

Director/writers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer movie is more about the eccentric characters that live on different shores of the lake.  However, the inescapable truth is that the largest lake in California is dying and there is nobody out there, except a few kooks and eccentrics, with any power at all trying to save it.

The story opens up with the current situation at the Salton Sea.  There are plenty of flashbacks to its heydays when the last of the Empire builders spent a fortune developing viable subdivisions with underground water and sewer lines which exist to this day.  Yet a fluke of a flood destroyed what could have been the American Riviera and the lake has treaded downward ever since.

Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer take great pains to interview and dissect the last remaining inhabitants of this great lake.  We see Gaston the Restaurateur who is going out of business after decades of serving the few remaining inhabitants.  We see a self styled Hungarian revolutionary who may be a Russian in real life who claims to be the mayor of Bombay Beach and seemingly hands out drinks to children.  A true nutcase of a man who accentuates his limited vocabulary with four letter words out of sheer pleasure of wallowing in the swill that surrounds him.  Then there is the naked old man of the desert with his shriveled up old penis who talks about redemption of the lake.  One of the truly poignant characters is the waitress at Gaston who is about to lose her job after over twenty years and yet is willing to accept the inevitable.

We feel the mild racial tensions between the relatively newly arrived blacks and the older lily white grand dames of the older generation who barely tolerate the blacks and bemoan the good old days. 

Probably this movie's most remarkable scenes are in Bombay Beach.  After all, the rest of the communities around the lake are either covered in silt or dying a slow death.  Bombay Beach seems to be the only little town that is still gasping for breath, not prospering exactly, with its mix of black and white population.

Even here, the directors paint a picture of despair and depression that is difficult to overcome, even for the most enthusiast advocates of the lake.  So many politicians have promised to help and none has ever delivered.  Sonny Bono was bitten by the bug and tried to save the lake but died too soon.  Documentaries can be boring at times and yet the directors have managed to give the movie a realistic tone which makes watching it engaging as we hop from shore to shore and story to story.

There are still a few heroes left.  Like the park rangers who have maintained one of the last largest wetlands for migratory birds and who pick up dead and dying fish and birds and try to save the sick and incinerate the dead to keep the environment  healthy.  Or the man who is building a religious mountain out of trash to showcase his religious beliefs and tangentially benefit the lake by making his shrine a tourist attraction.   Other than these individuals, there is practically no silver lining in the cloud of death that overhangs this lake.

So, what is happening now?  Contrary to press mongers and politicians, we find out that the lake is not really polluted.  There are too many fish in the lake and many of them die because of the high temperature in summer which deprives them of oxygen.  If the lake was truly polluted they would not come back in greater numbers year after year.

Who are the culprits?  Well, other than a freakish mother nature which flooded the land before the subdivisions were built, it is the water hungry politicians of San Diego who want to dry out the lake and transfer the water for the golf courses of the few rich people of their County.  Equally to blame are the holier than though environmentalists who sit in their fancy air conditioned apartments in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and want to destroy the lake to return it back to it’s desert status!  They completely ignore the fact that Salton Sea is the largest wetland in California.  These are the same people who claim concern for the environment and talk about giving the land back to aboriginal inhabitants while downing pitchers of Martinis during their gluttonous and sexual orgies.  At least the politicians are more honest in their motives.

Will the lake be ever saved? We are left to savor that question.  As the movie clearly states; in  the opinion of the learned people, if Salton Sea goes dry, the tremendous ensuing dust storms will destroy Palm Springs and will make breathing even more difficult for the smog ridden people of the greater Los Angeles area.

Let us hope that with the help of people with vision and director like Chris and Jeff, who are not ashamed to be politically incorrect, that will never happen.

We give this documentary starstarstarfor content.  Wonderful work by the dynamic directors.  Hope to see more work by these talented directors.

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