Review: Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea (2004)

(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: The Salton Sea is a man-made monstrosity.
Engineering mistakes created the Salton Sea, turned
it temporarily into a tourist attraction, and then
made it one of the ugliest places in America. The
documentary looks at the history of the region and
the people trapped in this environmental nightmare.
This film is fascinating like a slow motion road
accident. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

My introduction to the Salton Sea was a 1957 sci-fi monster movie
earthquake accidentally releases giant prehistoric mollusks into
the Salton Sea. A Navy research base next to the sea has to
eliminate the menace. It is a natural disaster. In fact, it
probably is no worse than what really happened in the history of
the Salton Sea. But most of the problems around the Salton Sea
are of human creation.

The sea was created by an engineering miscalculation in 1905. A
dam had stood between the Colorado River and the Salton Sink in
the Imperial Valley of Southern California. When the dam was
washed away 90% of the flow of the Colorado was accidentally
diverted and filled the basin known as the Salton Sink. Suddenly
California had a new largest lake. The area between Palm Springs
and the Mexican border became a popular recreation area in the
1950s. It was even nicknamed "California's Riviera". However it
has suffered a string of disasters, mostly man-made. Runoff from
the surrounding agriculture has made the lake polluted and very
saline. The net result is a landscape of extraordinary
repulsiveness. How did the Salton area go from being
California's water play-spot to this seemingly ravaged, post-
holocaust environment? What sorts of people still live there and
why? These are the subjects of a documentary by Chris Metzler
and Jeff Springer. The visions of 1950s kitsch chic architecture
hunkering in silt and decaying makes John Waters a very
appropriate choice for the film's narrator.

In the course of the film the producers talk to many of the
prominent people living on the fetid shores of the Salton Sea.
These are people have become accustomed to the annual cycle that
includes the salt forcing the oxygen out of water. On a regular
basis this kills the fish that wash up on the shores in the tens
of thousands carrying botulism that poisons the birds that feed
on them. The film can only describe and not really convey the

Among the residents of the area is Hunky Daddy. He was at one
time a Hungarian freedom fighter, but has found his freedom by
the Salton Sea where he rants in a thick accent, drinks beer, and
pulls down his pants to embarrass passersby. Another local
wanders the beach waving at people wearing only tennis shoes and
a big smile. One resident has built Salvation Mountain, a hill
of junk and old tires dedicated to Jesus. (Jesus was not
available for comment.) This is a place where the tacky is about
as good as it gets.

The film looks at three communities living around the Salton Sea.
There is Bombay Beach (population 366), Niland (population 1143),
and Salton City (population 978). These places are ugly and
depressing. People seem to be trapped there because the land is
inexpensive and so moving in is a lot easier than moving out.
But the film makes one reflect: Is living in one of these
communities really any worse than living in a cardboard box in a
polluted Mexico City? Are these people really worse off than the
homeless in Manhattan are? The fact is that a good deal of our
planet has been made ugly and dismal. The Salton area is not
unique even in the fact that they live among the sad vestiges of
a past when their area was an attraction rather than a repulsion.
Many ugly places show the remnants of a better older age. The
strange collection of weirdos who try to make the best of life
are not so unique as the film might suggest. So the world turns.

PLAGUES & PLEASURES ON THE SALTON SEA is a sort of ecological
morality tale. If its history is not unique, it is certainly bad
enough. We learn that this place is an environmental disaster
happening in slow motion. It is one of many that really need to
be fixed and which probably will not. I rate the film a high +1
on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.

Film Credits: <>

Mark R. Leeper
Copyright 2007 Mark R. Leeper