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The Great Train Robbery

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" Oh no you don’t. I don’t want to be a politician. "
— Raymond Massey as Abe Lincoln, Abe Lincoln in Illinois

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It is Labor Day, 2007, and it seems that film festivals are impossible to avoid. Some of your TCM correspondents are at the Telluride Film Festival, hanging out with people like Daniel Day-Lewis. I’m not there — although I love it — because I say that I need an occasional vacation that doesn’t center around movies. Strange then that I find myself writing about a festival favorite, Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea.

Plagues and Pleasures co-director Chris Metzler is at home, relaxing for a day and a half between shooting his new documentary and promoting Plagues and Pleasures. He seems to have film festivals on the mind, too.

“The thing that film festivals have been most handy for are the friendships that you strike up,” says Metzler, kicking things off.

He’s trying to explain how he learned to promote a movie, which seems to me like a an ill-defined, black hole of a task. Metzler and co-director Jeff Springer are giving it the old college try. “Being an independent filmmaker, you’re always wearing lots of hats as it is. [...] As we started traveling around on the film festival circuit, we started meeting other documentary filmmakers. Some of them have done it before. That sense of community starts to form, you start swapping tips.”

So festivals are important. That, and “basically just throw a lot of energy into it. Hopefully none of the mistakes you make are horrible — that you can always recover from them. “

Palm Springs Wannabe

Metzler and Springer threw four years of energy into the making of Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea, a portrait of the quirky locals who live on the shores of a landlocked California lake 200 feet below sea level.

The Salton Sea is the result of a mistake made a hundred years ago. A company diverted water from the Colorado River into the Imperial Valley for irrigation. Before the cut could be fortified, the Colorado river flooded, spilling most of its flow into what is now the Salton Sea. The former bank of the Colorado was eventually fortified, but the water remained. The lake is now fed only by agricultural runoff, and drained only by evaporation. That combination explains why the Salton Sea is already saltier than the ocean and will only get saltier.

Sold in the 1950s as a resort to rival Palm Springs, the Salton Sea experienced a real estate boom that has since gone bust. Flooding in the 1970s drove many away. Massive fish kills caused by heat and salinity create a negative public image of the Sea.

Now only a few thousand remain, and they make a colorful subject for a documentary. As the promotional materials put it, Plagues and Pleasures features “Hungarian revolutionaries, Christian nudists, pop stars, land sharks, hard drinkers, empty cities, failed resort towns, tons of dead fish, a dying café, and a man who built a mountain.”

How to Tell the Story

Metzler and Springer seem proud that their movie isn’t a dry treatise on water rights in the West or on the environmental folly of trying to irrigate a desert. Instead, they focus on the human angle, on the eccentrics, retirees, and expatriates from L.A. who choose to live there.

But not everyone appreciated that approach. When looking for natural supporters of the film, Metzler says “a lot of people higher up in environmental organizations would say ‘you gotta get rid of this humor; this is a serious issue.’ But they underestimate that you can mix entertainment and education.... People are naturally curious, and if you present them an interesting story, they can draw their own conclusions. “

That said, there is an “environmental” version of the movie. It’s cut down to an hour (from about 80 minutes) with TV time slots and public schools in mind. Metzler says it has a more traditional story arc, and it leaves out the brash Hungarian revolutionary and the Christian nudist.

“The theatrical film is a little bit more meandering. The middle section is short vignettes of the people who have remade the Salton Sea. That, really, we think, represents the Salton Sea, and that’s the reason why we made the film that way.”

“We created an environmental version, one, because we needed a TV cut-down,” says Metzler. “PBS, HBO, and Sundance Channel prefer documentaries that are just under an hour long. — And then also for something that could be used in classrooms.”

After the Show

Metzler says one of the most popular questions he gets asked is “what’s happened since the end of the movie?” Unfortunately, there’s been very little progress on the activist front. The movie tells how the federal government transferred some of Salton’s water rights to San Diego, practically guaranteeing that the water level will keep dropping. It also shows congressman Sonny Bono leading a big push to save the Sea, but since his death... nothing.

But once again, the human story is more moving than the story of water rights. “The two biggest changes in relation to the film are that several people in the film have passed away, and then some of the land prices around the Sea have increased; they’ve had a land and mortgage boom in the last year or so.”

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll be sad to hear that Mr. Gaston, the former owner of the café, has died. The Christian nudist who was so charming on camera and the woman driving the golf cart died too.

But if you’re rooting for the people in the movie, you’ll be happy to hear about the value of their land increasing. Metzler says the increase may just be part of a natural cycle. Then again, maybe their movie had something to do with it.

“There are several people who have seen the film and have moved down to the Salton Sea. It was something that I never expected, but it’s kind of exciting. There’s not very many people who live around the Salton Sea — there’s about six to seven thousand people. Once you add six or seven people, that’s a significant increase.”

Metzler thinks the area could draw lots of people, from environmentalists to artists to people who just like to live on the fringe. “It’s a cheap place to live. The climate’s nice nine months of the year. It’s a place that lets people be whoever they want to be.”

Waters of the Salton Sea

Amplifying that fringe-of-society vibe is the movie’s narrator, pop icon John Waters, the director of the original Hairspray and the king of bad-taste movies like Polyester and Pink Flamingos. Even if you haven’t seen Waters’ films you might have heard his voice as The Simpsons’ gay friend John, owner of Springfield’s campiest boutique.

“We had always wanted John Waters to narrate the film,” explains Metzler. But deadlines for festivals were looming, so they went with a more traditional narrator for the cut they showed at Slamdance. “It worked, but it wasn’t quite what our ideal was.”

But serendipity struck. Metzler recalls, “one night at a film festival we met the director of the festival. She was friends with John Waters and wanted to show him the movie because she just thought he’d enjoy it. She asked us for an extra DVD and we said ‘Of course! Would you mind asking if he wouldn’t mind narrating the film?’”

“A couple weeks later, he called and said ‘I loved your movie. Come out to Baltimore and I’ll narrate it.’ “

So once again, it was a film festival that saved the day and paved the way.

Next year, come Labor Day, maybe I’d better go to Telluride.

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies