Like the steadfast Salton Sea itself, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea has displayed remarkable staying power. The first version of the film played at the 2004 San Francisco Documentary Film Festival, one of more than 100 festivals that have screened the doc since its initial release. Salton Sea reappeared — with new narration by John Waters — earlier this year at the Red Vic and other local rep houses, and the response was so positive that Metzler says the pair are now talking to major distributors with an eye toward a larger theatrical release in the spring.
"Salton Sea has taken on a life of its own," says the San Francisco–based Metzler (Springer is currently living in Berlin but plans to move back to the Bay Area later this year). "When we first started out, we were having the regular problems that any filmmaker has about finding funding and later, distribution. We soon realized that since the film encapsulates both the quirky, indie movie sort of thing and also the environmental issues, nobody knew how to sell it. We always knew there was an audience out there, but it was gonna take two things: one was overcoming the hurdle of getting people familiar with the Salton Sea, because people didn't know about it. And then also we recognized that a large audience for the film was people who don't normally watch documentaries. So we took it out on the road, and wherever it screened it's gotten an enthusiastic response and created this momentum on a grassroots level. The film, which we kind of expected to die two and a half, three years ago, just keeps on getting bigger."
Anyone who's seen Salton Sea knows why. Sure, Waters adds quirky star power, but the film's briny subject is already as chockablock with character as it is with dead tilapia. Metzler and Springer trace the sea's accidental birth (two words: engineering mistake) and first century, which saw the region spiral from thriving resort into scruffy, smelly, near-abandoned ruin. Most compellingly, the film draws out the people who choose to dwell on the sea's desolate shores for whatever reason, be it the low cost of living or most poignantly, the fierce hope that the sea's 1950s and ’60s salad days will somehow miraculously return.
Though Salton Sea continues to chug along, the filmmakers have begun to turn their attention to new projects. Metzler and fellow San Francisco filmmaker Lev Anderson are currently working on a documentary on the band Fishbone (Springer is helping with shooting and editing); Metzler and Springer plan to reteam for a pair of docs — one on taxidermy and one on evangelical Christian backpackers who follow the path of the apostle Paul through the Middle East. "We have a deep affection for outsiders, and we always want to explore different subcultures," Metzler says. Then there's that other idea they have, for a doc on German tiki bars. Metzler's take on the phenomenon is in line with the duo's filmmaking philosophy: "It just shows you people like to embrace the exotic, wherever it might be." (Cheryl Eddy)