New age wasteland or: The little resort town that couldn’t

The film offers a glimpse into the life of a struggling, salty oasis for eccentrics.

Sara Nicole Miller

Utopia, dystopia, blah blah blah. All this, and everything in between can often be found within the chaotic land constellation that is Southern California.

“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea”

Directed by: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer Narrated by: John Waters
WHEN: Thursday, Oct. 25 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 28 at 2 p.m.; Q&A with director to follow screenings
WHERE: Bell Museum of Natural History, 10 Church Street S.E., Minneapolis, www.bellmuseum.org

In the mid ’90’s, filmmaker Chris Metzler took a road trip into the desert in search of Joshua Trees and Palm Springs – staples of SoCal topography. But the gods of the open road had other plans for this amateur filmmaker.

“I made a few wrong turns and stumbled upon the Salton Sea,” he said.

Located somewhere between Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs, the Salton Sea has a funny way of sticking in your mind and your nostrils. Something cosmic and inexplicable drew Metzler to the place. Five years later, he and co-director Jeff Springer decided to make a muckraking documentary of this long forgotten Californian non-paradise.

“Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” as the impressionistic mosaic of a doc is called, seeks, through a multiplicity of filmic methods and Errol Morris-y stylistics, to capture the heart and guts of the Salton Sea and its kooky inhabitants. Although oddball “King of Trash” John Waters narrates the doc, it’s the large cast of locals – endearing old stage hams and storytellers in their own right – whose laughable antics rival even those of Pee Wee Herman’s biggest adventures.

The film begins with a lounge lizard calypso tune juxtaposed with willy-nilly snapshots of the Salton Sea shoreline: old cavernous skeletons of trailers, garbage gunk strewn about a browning beach, dead tilapias piled up in the bubbling surf. In short, the place looks putrid, run-down and decayed. But, according to Metzler and the cast of “Plagues and Pleasures,” the Salton Sea area isn’t all bad; it’s even magical.

Metzler claims that contrary to popular belief, the Salton Sea is safe enough to swim in, and the fish are fresh enough to eat.

“The problem with the Salton Sea is the aesthetic – algae blooms, dead fish; it’s not going to do you any harm, it just doesn’t look like the recreational paradise that most of us idealize.”

The Salton Sea is an immensely salty 35-mile long and 15-mile wide engineering mistake from the turn of the last century. Because it has no natural input or output, this giant puddle is constantly susceptible to water run-offs and other odd eco happenstances. Floods occur. Botulism from maggots once wiped out a flock of seagulls. And the documentarians love to delight the eyes with the most pungent of the Sea’s grotesque underbelly.

Add in the candied townsfolk, the pockets of wildlife, the abandoned landscapes of industrial leisure and the area’s practically gurgling over with tall tales.

Once known as the “California Riviera,” the Salton Sea became a hot spot for water skiing, shuck-n-jive fishing recreation, and family weekends at the beach in the 1950’s. The American dream, or so it seemed, was reborn in the shape of the lake. People called the place “Palm Springs South” and “Las Vegas on the Water” as double-wides and Chevrolets packed with sunbathers became frequent spectacles.

But its illustrious potential as a suburban weekend paradise never materialized, and by the end of the 1970’s, the Salton Sea area became a failed boomtown.

“It just kind of vanished from the national consciousness,” Metzler explained. “It’s now a really bizarre place, with the combination of the water and the desert; it’s like an atomic test site come to life.”

It took Metzler and Springer about four years to make “Plagues and Pleasures,” during which they adopted a sort of gonzo cultural anthropologist approach to filming and got to know many of the townsfolk quite well.

There’s Donald, the Christian nudist who waves at passing cars on the highway; there’s the beer-guzzling Hunky Daddy, a seventy-something mooning extraordinaire and unofficial mayor of Bombay Beach; and there’s Leonard Knight, who’s in the middle of building “Salvation Mountain,” a giant three-story monument to Jesus made out of paint, tires and other garish assortments of junk.

Along with Donald, Hunky Daddy and Leonard, the remaining couple thousand locals that call the area home become the old candied fablers in “Plagues and Pleasures,” pontificating about the old days in plastic lounge chairs and giving their two cents about its future.

“Many don’t seem like they fit into anywhere else in society and have made this place their own dream,” Metzler explained.

Still, for Metzler, it at times seemed as if it would take forever to find any history of substance on the area. It’s literally a stink hole glossed over by the writers of local history.

“A lot of it is looking through people’s garages and basements, and those kinds of things. You have to spend the time to mind the trenches,” Metzler said.

“Plagues and Pleasures” may or may not be the Salton Sea area’s last hope for a resurgence, as water rerouting from the Colorado River could dry up the Sea and put a kibosh on it for good. But in the meantime, it’s hard not to appreciate the complexities of such a fantastical American space – dead fish, dirty old men and all.

“It has its own flavor,” Metzler explained. “People just kind of have to accept it for what it is.”