May 17-24, 2006

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'Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea'

Big Gulp: Botulism-stricken pelicans are ubiquitous in 'Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.'

Lake Mistake

Greetings from the Salton Sea: It's a septic tank, it's a wildlife refuge and it's a lot more

By Richard von Busack

It's a salute to the power of delusion--a power stronger than love or death. The feature at this week's Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, is an incisive look at one of the most forlorn bodies of water in North America: 35 miles long, 15 miles wide, minus 228 feet below sea level and just over 100 years old, the Salton Sea seethes under a merciless Imperial Valley sun.

Created by runoff from a Colorado River flood, it's now slowly drying up, after a series of sensational troubles. Storms took out boat ramps and resorts that dated from the area's heyday 50 years ago. In the 1990s, a botulism epidemic killed fish by the millions, and pelicans by the thousands. But the critically endangered sea may be making a lot of very rich people uncomfortable soon, if nothing is done to keep it alive.

Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's documentary signed up John Waters as narrator. "We were practicing visual anthropology with a stylized aesthetic," Metzler says in an interview with Steve "The Stick" Heindl, and I guess that sentence describes Waters' oeuvre as well. Certainly the Duke of Puke could make a dozen movies about the kind of individualists drawn to shores of this fetid sea. Though these sunsets are sensational, they're positively monochromatic compared to the local color.

The county sends welfare mothers to the Salton Sea--boring place, no malls, a little racism, but happily no gangbangers. The Hungarian émigré "Hunky Daddy" is the so-called mayor of Bombay Beach, the Sea's funk capital. He eases the pain of the shrapnel that the Russians shot into him in '56 with copious amounts of the kind of lager that sells by the crate. Though he's a freedom fighter, H.D. endears himself by dropping his pants for the camera. A leathery ancient nudist stands by the road with a "Love and Peace" sign. Leonard Knight, another beatific saint (this time with clothes on), works on an adobe-made "Salvation Mountain"). Anyone who loves eccentrics, old people with good stories, sunshine and cheap real estate is going to have some strong urges to get down there fast before it gets discovered and the squares move in.

Les Marty, a local, claims that the Salton Sea's problem is bad press: "The water is cleaner than Tahoe." If Tahoe's blue water leads one to thoughts of the divine, the Salton Sea leads one to stark humanism: what else but human beings could persist here? Or delude themselves that the water's fine for fishing (unkillable tilapias from Lake Tanzania still hang on in that chemical stew). But Metzler and Springer don't just look at the place as a refuge for human lulus; Clark Bloom of the Sea's National Wildlife Refuge is followed saving birds in the 120 degree heat, or collecting the sad corpses of pelicans before they can pass on botulism. Meanwhile twaddling, delaying politicians hold up the water supply necessary to cleanse the lake.

Why care about the Sea? For the sake of huge flocks of birds who don't have any wetlands left, thanks to the ardor of Southern California developers. Palm Springs, just down wind, is full of well-heeled citizens who might not like their estates afflicted with selenium-laden dust storms, and this is likely what they'll get if and when the sea dries up. So Plagues and Pleasures is the best kind of short vacation; you get to lounge with some interesting people, plus you get to learn a little something about the local environment and what can be done to keep it going.

Movie TimesThe Santa Cruz Guerilla Drive-In's screening of Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea takes place May 19.

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