Co-directors’ Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” is an account of how what was supposed to be California’s answer to the French Riviera has ended up being what one interview subject calls “the greatest sewer the world has ever seen.” Jaunty and fun for a while, with a cast of colorful locals who make the residents of “Vernon, Florida” seem normal, pic ultimately overstays its welcome and overstates its case. Fests, particularly those on the West Coast, will be natural takers, and pic could be a fine tube attraction if cut to an hour.
A roughly 400-square-mile body of water created in the middle of the otherwise arid Imperial and Coachella valleys when the Colorado River momentarily overran a poorly built dam, the Salton Sea was, for a brief moment in the 1950s, a prime fishing, bird-watching and vacation destination. Over the ensuing decades, however, a series of natural disasters would turn this so-called “miracle in the desert” into something more closely resembling the land that time forgot, as submerged telephone polls, rusted-out mobile homes and thousands of dead fish and birds came to dot the Sea’s rocky shoreline.
Yet, despite the potential health hazards, there are those who continue to call the Salton and its neighboring communities (Bombay Beach, Niland, Salton City) home. Among them: an outspoken Hungarian immigrant known as Hunky Daddy; a religious zealot who has spent years building a mountain of junk he believes to be a holy site; a nudist who spends his days waving to passing motorists; and a fast-talking realtor who continues to promote the area’s undeveloped land as though it were the next big thing. Metzler and Springer show much genuine affection for these weird folks, who to them seem to embody the last throes of the American frontier spirit.
Should the Sea be redeveloped, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, as was the dream of the late Sonny Bono? Or should it merely be allowed to dry up, a reminder of the foolishness by which man tries to master nature? Of course, there is no right answer — only a process of trial and error. However, as it enters into a discussion of the various legal battles over the Sea’s future, “Plagues and Pleasures” bogs down into a tiresome he-said/she-said affair, with a host of locals, politicos and environmental experts reiterating the same pros and cons that have already been explained earlier in pic.