Maintaining an environmentally conscious, eco-friendly lifestyle has been in vogue for a couple of years thanks to documentaries such as “An Inconvenient Truth” and “What Happened to the Electric Car?,” but the notion that human civilization greatly impacts natural resources is much older than a recent political statement or a charity trend (remember that TBS cartoon “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” or learning about Earth Day and Arbor Day in junior high?). Even before Al Gore’s global warming message garnered critical and popular praise, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s documentary “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea” was screening at film festivals across the country, informing audiences about the relationship between human actions and the environment.
Film Threat has had the pleasure of reviewing this documentary twice during its festival run (the first time by Eric Campos, the second time by yours truly). I recently had the good fortune to watch the new edition with narration by John Waters and released on DVD by docuramafilms. This John Waters version held its premiere at the Provincetown Film Festival in Massachusetts in the spring of 2005.
Metzler and Springer spent four years under the California sun gathering and piecing together footage of the stories and voices that have resounded and still resound from Imperial Valley and the banks of a man-made sea that has been around for just over a century. The historical (why the Salton Sea exists), environmental (implications of high salt content), and ethnographic (what sort of people would live there) layers of “Plagues & Pleasures” make it virtually three documentaries in one—and it works quite well, thanks to John Waters’s voice-over narration and revisions in pacing. Speaking of revisions, the most noticeable differences between the Slamdance version and this one are enhanced graphics (particularly during the pithy history lesson of the sea’s origins), some footage of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, more anecdotes from more residents, and much tighter narrative rhythm.
“Plagues & Pleasures” doesn’t present a doomsday scenario, but there is a stronger sense of urgency in the Docurama DVD edition of the documentary than the version that screened at Slamdance in 2004. While maintaining the perspective of an anthropological, geological case study on a piece of land in southern California, Metzler and Springer’s documentary illustrates the multifaceted nature of man’s interaction with his environment.