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Movie Review: Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea

By Mike Everleth ⋅ November 2, 2006

Older woman stands next to golf cart in the desert

There’s that old saying “History is written by the winners.” But what can make a good or great documentary subject isn’t necessarily the “losers,” but the “almost made it”s or the “winner for a while until fading into obscurity”s. Because while the winners do get to write the history books, societies and cultures are moved along by both the great and the small — even though the greats get the majority of the attention.

If I can sidebar into an analogy here, you see this all the time in the music industry where some groundbreaking musician toils away in semi-obscurity for his career and who then has his shtick stolen by someone else who figures out how make it popular. A good example of this that pops into my mind is Al Jourgensen, who had his act borrowed by Rob Zombie. Jourgensen and his band Ministry pioneered the American industrial metal music scene and never gathered more than a cult following, despite a slight flirting with popularity in the early ’90s.

But then comes along Rob Zombie, who borrowed Jourgensen’s “cowboy from hell” look; put a glossier, poppier shine on the industrial sound (at a time when Ministry was becoming much darker and a lot heavier); and added references to cheezy B-movie horror flicks to the lyrics, CD cover art and stage shows. While Jourgensen continues to churn out heavy post-apocalyptic metal that’s pretty inaccessible to the mainstream, Zombie regularly appears in mainstream outlets as the go-to horror movie guy. I just saw him hosting “underground” movies on Turner Classic Movies, which aren’t “underground” at all and are just old horror flicks.

So if Palm Springs, the California desert playground for the rich and famous, is Rob Zombie, then fetid wasteland the Salton Sea is Al Jourgensen.

Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer‘s documentary Plagues & Pleasures On The Salton Sea is a portrait of an environment on the decline. The actual sea, which is 35 miles long and 15 miles wide and was created by accident in California’s Imperial Valley by a diversion of the Colorado River, briefly flourished as a resort area from the ’50s to the ’70s until massive flooding and the sea’s high salt content turned it into an ecological disaster. Now the lakeside is populated by elderly speculators still hoping the area will be revived, refugees escaping the violence of inner city Los Angeles and the general types of eccentrics that flock to the West Coast in seeming droves.

This is not an advocacy documentary — although the area seems like it could really use one. Instead, it’s part history of a largely forgotten area and part quirky profile of the sea’s residents. Some of the more intriguing characters are the unofficial mayor of Bombay Beach “Hunky Daddy,” a barely intelligible Hungarian immigrant (he needs subtitles even though he speaks English); the “Landman,” a Cuban immigrant who sells dead lots in the defiant hope the area will bounce back; “Naked Don,” who just wants friends who accept him for his nakedness; and Leonard Knight, who is singlehandedly building the Salvation Mountain tourist attraction (a man-made pile of dirt he covers with paint).

The film is very respectful of all of it’s subjects — no matter how outre they appear or how strange their devotion to their home is — and that includes the sea itself, which is of course the movie’s biggest star. You have to kinda feel sorry for the sea. It’s like an episode of that old VH1 show Behind The Music. However, instead of bouncing back to a happy ending of playing nostalgic gigs for aging groupies, the sea is still being tortured by its addiction to heroin, or in this case salt. The alkaline sands of the desert that the sea covered up have contributed to an extremely high salt content to the water, which has made it deadly to the fish that were imported into it.

And while the sea doesn’t really have a voice of its own, it seems very appropriate that the filmmakers did the next best thing and got cult movie director John Waters to narrate the movie. While people like “Hunky Daddy” and “Naked Don” seem like they could be characters out of Waters’s own films, the man just has a really good speaking voice. Really, he should do narration as a supplementary career choice. Not that he needs anything else on his plate, but he’s that good.

Watch the Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea movie trailer:

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea photo gallery:

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