Newly released on DVD, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is no bad-taste epic, but still it benefits greatly from knowing, sardonic voiceover by John Waters — an expert in human folly. The film offers a crash course in the history of California’s Salton Sea, the inadvertent result of an irrigation project gone wrong in the water-starved American West. Once touted as a tourist mecca, the erstwhile resort is known today for the ruins of resort architecture, massive fish die-offs, and an overwhelming stench.
There’s something gently post-apocalyptic in mood about the paradise-lost visuals (contemporary DV-shot verité footage plus some fascinating stock), although interview footage reveals the poignant reality of the plight of the locals, some of whom made investments in land that has plummeted so far in value that they can’t afford to move away and now live alongside families who were moved to the neighborhood as part of a government project that sought out cheap land on which to homestead the poor.
There’s no visual flair to speak of, and to call the results particularly adept as a sociological document might be stretching the truth — but directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer foreground commentary from wildlife and conservation authorities who save local birds from an inglorious death in the murk and note that, while the Salton Sea has replaced coastal wetlands destroyed by urban sprawl, a continued deterioration in environmental conditions will eventually be noted by the wealthy denizens of Palm Springs, which is apparently downwind. (An effort to stage an environmental intervention at the Salton Sea essentially died along with its lawmaker-sponsor, onetime Palm Springs habitué Sonny Bono.)
The suggestion is enough to conjure images of a yet-to-be-made Waters film in which the idle rich contend with the terrible, saline odor (a pointed metaphor, natch) settling in around their golf courses, plastic-surgery clinics, and over-watered grassy estates. Now that sounds like a movie. But even on its own, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is an engaging, entertaining snapshot of a long, tragicomic moment in American history. B-