Mention the Salton Sea to most people, and they'll either conjure up notions of a vaguely familiar, barren locale that they can't quite place, or an eponymous Val Kilmer movie about meth addiction's last exit. Neither sounds much like a place you'd want to go, so most people don't visit the Salton Sea, be it physically or mentally.
The real Salton Sea is a large body of serially mismanaged water about an hour south of Palm Springs, California. Its very creation was a screw-up of sorts: A former lakebed known as "the Salton Sink" morphed into a 45-mile long "puddle" after unusually high Colorado River levels made mincemeat of some faulty dam engineering in California's Imperial Valley. Evaporation gradually shrank the Salton Sea to a still-massive 30-mile-long body of water, albeit one with no outlet and salinity levels that are 25 percent higher than the Pacific Ocean's.
In the 1950s this big, wet mistake looked like a brilliant one. With its remote (but not too remote) location, sizzling year-round temperatures and prodigious fishing, surfing and sailing opportunities, the Salton Sea became a destination for lovers of recreation and relaxation alike. It had all the makings of a bona fide fun-'n'-sun boomtown -- until a perilous series of floods and hurricanes in the '70s brought the sea and its surrounding resort towns to their knees, never to recover.
The image of the Salton Sea that's been projected since is that of a criminally neglected ghost town filled with noxious waters, rancid fish, dead birds and a slow-cooked citizenry intent on running out the clock on their miserable civic plight.
Up until four years ago, Chris Metzler was only vaguely familiar with the Salton Sea. But while the area's sordid rep is apt to make most casual observers run the other way, it intrigued Metzler, an Independence, Missouri-bred filmmaker who, at that time, earned his keep editing "awful American B-movies" and music videos in Los Angeles.
A friend and fellow USC film school grad, Jeff Springer, grew up in an arid, sparsely populated Southern California town not dissimilar to the Salton Sea, and both filmmakers shared "a similar aesthetic," according to Metzler.
"We're both fascinated with the desert and apocalyptic, failed resort towns," says Metzler, who now lives in San Francisco. "The Salton Sea is overflowing with the bizarre and the surreal. In the '50s and '60s, the Salton Sea was trying to bring Hawaii to the West Coast -- except their 'coast' was out in the middle of the desert."
So the pair set out alone to document the struggles of the area and its hardscrabble residents on digital film. In the course of their research, Metzler and Springer found there were plenty of films about the Salton Sea, but many were far too narrow in their science-first focus and, therefore, not very engaging. What Metzler and Springer wanted was something more human and dynamic while not sacrificing their subject's ecological and historical underpinnings. In other words, they set out to do the impossible.
"Obviously, there are some very traditional views of what documentaries should be," says Metzler, whose initial wave of shoestring funding was entirely out of his and Springer's own wallets. "We tried to deal with comedy, some offbeat communities and environmental issues. A lot of people would say each of those issues is a separate film. Sure, we could have made an entire film about the characters of the Salton Sea, but we felt that would have been somewhat dishonest."
The characters are nonetheless the indisputable highlight of the pair's finished (sort of) product, Plagues & Pleasures of the Salton Sea. The scene-stealer of this eccentric bunch is an aging Hungarian immigrant known to all as "Hunky Daddy," who moons young black kids and pounds a case of Milwaukee's Best each day on his tiny front porch in Bombay Beach (population: 350). Hunky Daddy's perpetually sunny demeanor is a reminder that, to some people, the freedom to live on society's outskirts and do whatever the hell one pleases is the essence of the American Dream.
Plagues & Pleasures captures the charmingly gritty, often hilarious spirit of Salton area residents brilliantly, while deftly injecting the picture with just the right dosage of policy, science and history to make the viewer care about the Salton Sea's sorry plight. The film's cinematography is quite often gorgeous to look at, a choice that reveals the filmmakers' attitude toward what they feel is an ill-deserved public rep.
"We swam in the sea, we ate the fish," says Metzler. "Jeff actually went windsurfing on it all summer. It's safe -- but aesthetics is a problem. You wander up to the shore and see all these fossilized fish. Really, the problem is just too many fish. It's the easiest place to catch fish in the world, and the fish are just fine."
A rough cut of the film debuted at the Slamdance Film Festival in 2004, and the Springer and Metzler have kept Plagues & Pleasures on the festival circuit ever since, scooping up awards by the armload and fine-tuning content along the way. Last week they fulfilled a yearlong dream when they recorded a new narrative track featuring legendary counterculture filmmaker John Waters, which should give this spectacularly engaging little jewel of a documentary a chance of finding the wide audience it deserves.
"Ever since the beginning, we wanted John Waters to do the voiceover," says Metzler. "The undercurrent of his films is always about the unique gifts of outsiders. And that's the story of the Salton Sea: people who've worked their asses off to transform this ecological disaster into paradise."