June 29, 2013

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Chris Metzler & Jeff Springer, 2004

The Salton Sea was a rapidly growing tourist destination. A accidentally created man-made oasis in the California desert, it looked as if it were going to be another Palm Springs. Unfortunately, the engineers didn't foresee the increased levels of salinity caused by agricultural runoff, or the varying water levels which would eventually flood the area. This would ultimately cause a fish die-off, which didn't exactly smell inviting. The vacationers stopped coming, and by the 1990's the only people who remain are nostalgic retirees and eccentric loners.

John Waters does a good job in narrating this quirky documentary. The archival footage of the Salton Sea really paints a vivid picture of an exciting vacation spot. The remaining residents are left with nothing other than distant memories of a thriving local economy, and all that remains are salt-encrusted abandoned buildings. The images of the corroded building skeletons feel apocalyptic. The current community, who look like people who got lost on their way to Burning Man, don't exactly give you the sense that your home would be safe unlocked. From the nudists to the urban dodgers who wanted to escape the L.A. gang-violence, the rough-talk and vulgarity doesn't appear to be a family-friendly environment. There is not one view of an educational establishment or grocery store. The unofficial mayor greets passer-bys by mooning them. There doesn't even seem to be a police presence. When you see building lots on sale for as low as $400, it seems as if they are just giving away land now, and even that price feels inflated. Unfortunately the innocent 1950's water-sports has given way to teenage keg-parties and opportunistic desert-thieves. The wet-paint on the motel sign has dried and decayed. All that remains is the scattered arrangement of RV's on the cracked desert landscape. Sonny Bono tried to save the area but his untimely-death only seemed to reinforce the Salton Sea's inevitable demise. Some optimism remains of the Salton Sea being restored, but I am not one of the believers.

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