Narrated with morbid relish by John Waters, this witty doc chronicles the rise and ruination of the Salton Sea, a tiny inland ocean once promoted as “California’s Riviera” but now a festering, apocalyptically hideous ecological disaster zone. The man-made sea was created by accident in the early 20th century when a poorly engineered irrigation project collapsed, flooding a lakebed that had been dry for centuries. The nearly 400-square-mile lake was expected to disappear, but snowmelt and agricultural runoff have perpetuated it, albeit at the cost of steadily rising salinity. The sea was developed into a glamorous resort area in the 1950s, but in 1976 flooding caused by inept irrigation management destroyed local infrastructure and turned the lake into a reeking cesspool subject to cycles of algal bloom, bird and fish die-offs and biblical fly infestations. It’s pretty much the armpit of the universe, but a handful of hardy and self-reliant souls choose to live there. Some are old-timers too stubborn to let a mere cataclysm push them around; others—including a leathery old nudist, a boozy Hungarian insurrectionist and a Jesus-freak folk artist—were drawn to the deserted lake by its frontierlike atmosphere of freedom. Saddest and funniest of all, however, are the real-estate speculators sitting on huge tracts of hell and ritually persuading themselves that renewed good times are just around the corner.
Chris Makepeace, Jeff Bridges