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Movie Review

A lake of freakish proportions attracts a cast of characters

Leonard Knight (above), the creator of Salvation Mountain, is among the many quirky personalities drawn to what director John Waters calls 'an unnatural body of water.' Leonard Knight (above), the creator of Salvation Mountain, is among the many quirky personalities drawn to what director John Waters calls "an unnatural body of water." (Tilapia)
Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 5, 2007

The Salton Sea is very salty but not a sea. Thirty-five miles long and 15 miles wide, it's California's biggest lake - bigger than Lake Tahoe.

Unlike Tahoe, the Salton Sea lies in the middle of a wasteland (it's 50 miles south of Palm Springs). Also unlike Tahoe, it was the product of a hydrological mistake. Salton is "an unnatural body of water," John Waters jauntily declares in his narration to the documentary "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea," which screens tonight at the Regent Theatre, in Arlington, the first of three venues it will play locally between now and Sunday.

At the turn of the last century, various irrigation and diversion schemes in California's Imperial Valley led to massive flooding. The result was the Salton Sea. Developers saw it as a natural tourist destination. "A Palm Springs with water!" enthused an early-'60s promotional film. Stocked with fish, Salton did begin to draw sportsmen and other vacationers.

Minor boom turned into major bust by the late '70s. Freak rains raised the water level too high in some places - while levels became dangerously low in others. Agricultural runoff drastically raised the water's salinity level. The sea gave off a disagreeable odor. Avian botulism and algae blooms became regular occurrences.

The Salton Sea failed as real estate development, but filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer see it as fertile ground for character development. Antic anthropology meets grim ecology in a "Mad Max" terrain, as they unearth a Nathanael West society of the beached, bizarre, and blasted in places with names like Salton City, Niland, and Bombay Beach.

We meet a gung-ho realtor who bills himself as "the Land Man"; a pompadour-wearing Hungarian freedom fighter who hands out beers to passersby; a nudist hitchhiker; and a Christian artist whose idea of bearing witness is to create an artificial mountain. The late Sonny Bono shows up, too (he represented the area in Congress).

Metzler and Springer include interviews, news footage, home video, news clippings, TV commercials, old photos, even a scrapbook. It makes for a strange, but somewhat endearing, melange of the grim and comic. The material is interesting, if not perhaps as interesting as the filmmakers imagine. The important thing is that they never patronize that material. Many of these people are as grotesque as the landscape they live in, but Metzler and Springer take them at face value. They even pass up the opportunity to mock Bono (though we do get a clip of him and Cher dueting on a Doobie Brothers song).

The best thing about the documentary is the score, by a chameleonic rock trio named Friends of Dean Martinez. Alternately twangy, doomy, and lounge-lizardy, it's landlocked surf music - Dick Dale behind the wheel of a dune buggy.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea

Directed and written by: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer

Narrated by: John Waters

At: Regent Theatre, Arlington, today; Gloucester Cinema, Gloucester, tomorrow; Hastings House, Beverly, Sunday

Running time: 73 minutes

Unrated (a few four-letter words, full-frontal glimpses of an elderly male nudist)

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