But make no mistake: Even if the Salton Sea itself stinks, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's documentary about the improbable body of water where, the witty Waters deadpans, “utopia and the apocalypse unite to dance a dirty tango” certainly does not.
By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, the often-absurd observations Metzler and Springer coax out of a cast of real-life characters who would be right at home in one of Waters' trailer-trashiest tales—a roadside nudist waving to bemused motorists, a religious artist crafting a “Salvation Mountain” out of mud and paint, a pompadoured immigrant named “Hunky Daddy” swilling beer and spinning tales of the Hungarian Revolution—account for many of the Pleasures to be had here.
A 35-mile-long saltwater lake created entirely by accident when a developer with visions of turning an ancient lakebed in the middle of the Southern California desert into irrigated farmland made a few too many cuts into the bank of the Colorado River, the Salton Sea flourished as a fishing resort for a few decades and flirted with becoming a Palm Springs-style desert retreat for the rich and famous. But then a series of storms washed away all the marinas and resorts along its shore, leaving behind block after block of landlocked boats amid the rotting hulks of homes.
Although it would look like hell on earth to most, to a handful of eternal optimists—including the shamelessly star-spangled salesman of empty lots, Manny “The Landman” Diaz—the Salton Sea still seems like a slice of heaven. Sure, the combination of the unnatural salinity and the all-too-natural desert heat can cause more than 7 million fish to die off in a single summer day. But, in the shoreline communities of Bombay Beach, Niland and Salton City, places where you don't have to be rich to own a piece of California, hope—like the saltwater itself—refuses to evaporate.
Even though resident Don “Goldman” Smith pessimistically predicts, “Next year, it'll smell just as bad as it does this year,” by the end of
Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, you might be strangely tempted to listen to the jingles and go “See the Landman.”
Cast: John Waters, Sonny Bono, Laszlo “Hunky Daddy” Orosz and Manny “The Landman” Diaz
Directors/Screenwriters: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer
Producer: Chris Metzler
Running time: 73 min.
Release date: April 20, 2007