Electric Dreams

Tonight's documentary is part of a movie installment for Industriance. Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea is the last in a seven-part series that included cinematic glimpses at post-NAFTA Mexico, a biodynamic CSA farm in Chicago, and train-hopping across America.

Once touted as the Riviera of California, the Salton Sea is the result of an engineering debacle that caused the Colorado River to breach a dike in the Imperial Valley, rapidly filling the 35-by-15-mile Salton Sink with mineral-rich water. The desert anomaly became a major resting spot for migratory birds. In the 1950s, resort towns flourished along its banks, until storms, floods, rising salinity, and consequent fish die-offs left the foul-smelling Salton Sea to a population of quirky, resilient, and sometimes desperate characters.

This is a state of affairs that lovers of the Gowanus Canal can understand. "You see, we have our own polluted waterway, with art, industry, community, and kookiness thriving along it," says Rooftop Films artistic director Mark Elijah Rosenberg by way of introduction. "And like the residents of the Salton Sea, we hope that developers recognize the people and communities which have grown up around here." Directed by Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer and narrated by John Waters, Plagues and Pleasuresis the first documentary to capture the surreal, desolate appeal of the Salton Sea, as well as the eccentric characters who still reside on its shores. It's a heartbreaking, sidesplitting parade of humanity that includes an intractable, desert-withered nudist named Donald; a Hungarian revolutionary named Hunky Daddy; a spangled real estate broker named the Landman; an outsider artist named Leonard Knight; and a politician named Sonny Bono. Almost everyone in the movie mentions the stink of dying fish, but they insist that the Salton Sea is not polluted, just too salty.

Dishing dirt: Stephanie Skaff plants some eggs
photo: Tasja Keetman
Dishing dirt: Stephanie Skaff plants some eggs

By the movie's end, the crowd is in elated, vociferous spirits. Bathed in the ambient glow of the city lights and the humid Gowanus-laced air, people are reluctant to abandon the rooftop, even for the promise of an after-party down the street with director Chris Metzler. Instead, they linger like teens at a drive-in movie.

"This reminds me of a time when going to the movies was an event," says 33-year-old John Hall.

Thirty-seven-year-old Georgia Hutchins says, "I still wouldn't eat the fish."

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