Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s “seaumentary” is a compelling tale of human foible (the inadvertent 1905 diversion of the Colorado River into California’s Imperial Valley, resulting in an “unnatural” 525 square-mile body-of-water), greed (potentially a real estate bonanza for the rich, rivalling nearby Palm Springs) and inertia: many possible solutions but the human and ecological risks rivals Kyoto for systemic head-in-the-sand policy and willful inaction.
Moreover, it’s a cautionary tale for other water-rich countries (er, hello there Canada) who, sooner than later, will find the fight over our most precious resource will make the battles for and about oil pale in comparison.
Effectively narrated by John Waters (who knows just when to spice up his lines with a wry tone whose liquid counterpart in a highball glass inspires the offerings during the on-air interview with a Salton Sea bartender), the film walks a narrow line of advocating for the environment and introducing us to the zany array of characters who eke out an existence around the shores of, in 2007, California’s largest wetland.
With its ideal weather (year-round sunshine, warm temperatures but also back-to-back tropical storms that flooded many out in the late ‘70s and water so hot that outbreaks of botulism threatened millions of fowl in the late ‘90s), developers planned a retirement community of the highest order: yacht club, golf, fishing and boating. But more anxious to turn a quick profit than actually build a community (the related TV-footage declaiming “The Birth of a City” and “A Palm Springs With Water” now drips with irony), just land plots were sold—one development had 26,000 lots @$3,500. Undaunted, Manny Diaz (a.k.a. The Landman) vowed, “I’ll come here and make a fortune.” By film’s end, the only ship of his that’s come in is used for his solitary pre-dawn fishing trips.
Other residents include a community of single mothers who are happy to raise their children in dingy neighbourhoods but away from big-city influences such as “gang-bangers and weed.” Seems their only quibble is with the “prejudiced old white people.” Because of nature’s violent interventions and rumours that the Salton Sea was filled with pollution from Mexican runoff, long-term development never began. Even Sonny Bono’s intervention wasn’t enough. Those, many retired, still living in the resort-that-fun-forgot, are stuck: with real estate prices so low, they could never move anywhere else.
From the eccentrics file comes Laszlo Orosz (a.k.a. Hunky Daddy) who survived the Hungarian Revolution and is happy as a pig-in-shit, mooning women and sucking back beer from dawn to dusk. Leonard Knight espouses his devotion to God by building a mountain of gaudy love in hopes of revving up the tourist trade and winning a few souls for his maker. In a wonderful metaphor, Knight’s first attempt was completely demolished, sliding down the craggy hill. Many years later, his handmade, faith-based replacement seems to be holding its own. (The long shot of a flooded-out bar, The Luck of the Irish, is also a compelling image of the seaside problems.)
Fun as they are, the ravage on the migrating birds is the real travesty of this documentary. Like the saucy, wonderfully cheesy music provided by the Friends of Dean Martinez (the slippery steel guitar and Hammond organ hues reinforce the mid-century’s era of hope brilliantly) the plight of flora and fauna weaves in and out of the show but never takes centre stage to really nail the point of a massive echo-tragedy in the works.
The Salton Sea may be hidden away in the desert, but if allowed to dry up (water transfers from the Colorado River to other more populous jurisdictions, currently the biggest threat of all) the fate of millions of our feathered friends will most certainly come home to roost. JWR