Sunday, May 30, 2010

Beverly Hillbillies


Once as popular as Palm Springs, the serene waters of the Salton Sea are now fetid and stagnant and are considered one of America's worst ecological disasters. Dotted around the shores are remnants of it's high-rolling heyday; abandoned resort towns where a few hard-core outsiders either hang on to the hope of a revival or wait to die. The tragicomic documentary, 'Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea', reveals this Californian underworld and it is as warped and compelling as a John Waters film, only for real.


The Imperial Valley is a setting of natural beauty; surrounded by purple mountains and unique rock formations, the sea is so tranquil that it mirrors the desert sunsets flawlessly. But, as the waves calmly lap the shores of the white sandy beaches, they cough up dead fish and birds by the thousands. The tycoons soon discovered that the water was saltier than the ocean and they abandoned their plans decades ago. Drive down the sea towards Salton City on the west shore and you'll most likely be greeted by Donald, a puckered and complacent old nudist, as you enter. The town itself is a failed (not even faded) 1950s attempt at a resort town, where Riviera chic meets the apocalypse. Consequently, all that remains are gaunt, unfinished buildings; hollowed art-deco yacht clubs, a sad café, empty swimming pools and a few rusty sun loungers. Like Donald, the current residents are sun-drenched retirees, living amongst the palm trees and ruins in RVs and mobile homes and spending their days reminiscing about the pleasure days and fishing. Some claim that the fish are poisoned with Botulism (like in Erin Brockovich), while others eat them raw. Most wax lyrical about the town, however, and are adamant that a renaissance is just around the corner. "It's the smell" one woman considers, "it's the smell... that I like, and then the fact that we don't have anything here..."


While those in Salton City continue waiting for their dream, across the sea on the east shore is the dusty little trailer town, Bombay Beach, where people have already found their paradise. In a surreal, scrubby landscape scattered with broken buildings, half-sunken trailers, burnt-out cars and bones, it is the drifters who live here that bring colour to the bleakness. Golf buggies are de rigueur and eccentric OAPS cruise down red dirt roads, ciggy and a Margarita in hand, extolling the high life and pointing out what-used-to-be, the trailers people have committed suicide in and the place where one man died doing a pooh. The town's unofficial mayor, Hunky Daddy, is a hard-drinking Hungarian revolutionary who looks like a bit like an off-duty Elvis impersonator and is a self-proclaimed 'party boy'. Hunky Daddy holds himself up as the living embodiment of the American Dream, but in reality is a jibbering tangle of skewed and lewd idioms.


The future of the Salton Sea remains uncertain - many bids have been made to save the area, including one from Cher's ex-husband, but most have failed or were not completed and the sea (along with hope) is evaporating. As it dries out, it poses the threat of raising an alkali dust storm which could destroy, perhaps bittersweetly, the nearby areas which have refused to help, including it's old rival Palm Springs.

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