Historically, it's taken a certain kind of industrious individual to eke out a living in the wilds of California, where water is scarce and nearly everyone is a transplant. In the early 20th century, some of those pioneers received a boon partly of their own making, when faulty irrigation design caused the Colorado River to overflow and spill into the salt-mining valley known as the Salton Sink. Rather than evaporating, the water stayed, sustained by continuing agricultural runoff. The result was a salt lake 35 miles long and 15 miles wide, referred to in tourism-board promotions of the '40s and '50s as "a miracle in the desert," and the ideal spot for vacationers looking for balmy weather and inland water sports.
Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's documentary Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea looks at what became of this accidental Shangri-La a century later, once the sea-feeding farm waste began to turn toxic, killing fish and gulls and producing a vile odor. Since a large number of people bought land in the region solely as an investment, the small towns surrounding the Salton Sea have become an odd conglomeration of thrown-together shacks and run-down luxury hotels, populated by old-timers who remember the glory days, and have hopes that the state will soon clean up the water and revive their fortunes.
Because Metzler and Springer are equally interested in the Salton Sea's assortment of oddballs and the potential for environmental catastrophe, Plagues & Pleasures can seem a little unfocused. And while John Waters' narration and Friends Of Dean Martinez's soundtrack allow for impressive credits on the DVD cover, neither participant adds much. Still, the movie is engaging for the way it documents the rise and fall of a semi-natural landmark, and especially for the way it shows how people still come to California to remake themselves. In the case of the Salton Sea, the aggregation of immigrants, evangelists, and drifters who arrived during the heyday are now troubled by the influx of "welfare people from L.A." Meanwhile, those minorities are finding cheap real estate, a low crime rate, and easy access to the beach. If the story of the Salton Sea proves anything, it's that "paradise" is relative.
Key features: Bonus footage, plus a commentary in which the directors describe their own strange love of the Salton Sea's post-apocalyptic resort feel.