The Salton Sea is located in Imperial Valley fifty miles south of Palm Springs, California. Sitting some 228 feet below sea-level, it’s almost an oasis in the dry, southern landscape of the Bear State. As videotaped by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, the Salton Sea is desolate from afar, otherworldly up close, beautiful from certain angles, and overall strangely tranquil. In their documentary “Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea,” Metzler and Springer explore a lost treasure, a sea that wasn’t supposed to be one.
Running eighty-six minutes long, “Plagues & Pleasures” is practically an audio-visual thesis. If an undergrad or graduate student, studying to be an environmentalist or geologist, were allowed to be creative in presenting his or her thesis on the ecological impact of unique land formations and bodies of water in the southern California area, part of it would “be” this documentary.
“Plagues & Pleasures” is very thorough in regards to the information it presents. It begins with a history of the Salton Sea and how it came into existence. Developments started in 1901 when water from the Colorado River was diverted to what became the Salton Sea. The documentary doesn’t explicitly say it, but the Salton Sea probably got its name from the water’s high salt content (the result of river water mixing with farm soil). The remainder of “Plagues & Pleasures” includes discussions on the rise and decline of Salton City, interviews with its residents, and an examination of its political, economic, and environmental significance.
As the filmmakers transition from one topic to the next and they introduce varying perceptions of the place, your impressions of Salton City change as well. Imperial Valley’s citizens genuinely like living there—even if they cannot agree whether or not the fish in the Salton Sea are safe to eat (one person calls the sea the biggest sewage dump on the planet, and someone else confidently claims to have eaten the fish for over thirty years). As a viewer, your initial reaction is one of awe and curiosity. It transforms into humility (as in “I’m glad I don’t live here), and then grows into compassion and concern. Like a proposal designed to secure monetary funding, “Plagues & Pleasures” becomes an effective tool in lobbying for institutional support. In fact, the documentary covers Sonny Bono’s interest in revitalizing Salton City before his tragic death.
While its pacing occasionally slows, and some of the footage feels repetitive, “Plagues & Pleasures” undoubtedly argues how important it is that California’s government address the needs of the Salton Sea as an ecosystem if not an economic commodity. If Metzler and Springer were on path to becoming environmentalists and their documentary was their thesis, they’d get an A.