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Images of The Salton Sea: California's Lost Riviera in Three Cinematic Adventures

Shoreline of the Salton Sea at Obsidian Butte by Ruth Nolan.jpg
Shoreline of the Salton Sea at Obsidian Butte | Photo: Ruth Nolan.

It's almost impossible to live in Southern California and not have heard of the Salton Sea, which just happens to be our state's largest lake. Created accidentally in a two-year period between 1905-07, when a Colorado River irrigation project went terribly wrong, the 15-mile wide, 35 mile long sea - which fills up but a fraction the area in southeastern Riverside and northern Imperial Counties once filled in by Ancient Lake Cahuilla - has come to symbolize the arc of our state's boldest adventures and highest aspirations, and, in the past few decades, has reflected some of our worst social and economic challenges and nightmares, which glare all too clearly back at us from -200 feet below sea level from this vast body of water. The Salton Sea, 30% saltier than the Pacific Ocean and getting saltier, has been ripe cinematic fodder for many films, many of them offering dysoptian visions of our Golden State's hopes and dreams gone terribly wrong, and an even more despairing, post-apocalyptic future yet to come.

However, several contemporary film-makers have boldly taken the plunge to counter-act these disturbing stereotypes; these recent cinematic works miraculously part the murky waters to reveal an astonishing depth of riches in the stories of the people whose lives are staked out along its shores. Israeli-American Alma Ha'rel's Bombay Beach (2011), Los Angeles-based filmmakers Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated by the iconic cinematographer Jon Waters, (2004) and the cult classic Into the Wild (2007), produced by Sean Penn, have breathed new life and energy into the stale, dystopian stereotypes that have all too often come to represent how we perceive, and think about, the people who are drawn to live and spend time at the Salton Sea.

Bombay Beach Store at Salton Sea | Photo: Ruth Nolan.
Bombay Beach Store at Salton Sea | Photo: Ruth Nolan.

"Many of the people of the Salton Sea live on the fringe of society," says Metzler. "They celebrate their own individualism, but it's not in a selfish way. Through their perceptions and misperceptions, the strange history and unexpected beauty of the Salton Sea, along with uniqueness and strengths of the people there, are revealed."

In fact, it appears that, as depicted by these films, the area may be experiencing a sort of renaissance, even in the face of much adversity and the tough economic circumstances that aren't just endemic to the region. There's a whiff here of the optimism and enthusiasm that once spawned the racing boat yacht clubs built in the 1940's by entertainment notables Frank Sinatra and others to service the throngs that once filled recreation-seekers at the Salton Sea's beaches - not to mention the passion for the sea's environmental preservation generated by the late Sonny Bono back in the 1980's and early 90's, and in whose memory the Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge has been named. Increasing salinity and other ecological problems face the sea today, not to mention the demand for its water by neighboring San Diego county, and its future remains uncertain, and yet it persists, no matter how hard the sun beats down -- Much like the people in these hopeful and inspiring documentary films.

In contrast to earlier Salton Sea-inspired cinematic delights, such as the black and white 1950's era thriller The Monster that Challenged the World, the despair-infused The Grifters (1990), based on novelist Jim Thompson's noir classic, and the disturbing, crystal meth-infused murder and mayhem depicted in The Salton Sea (2002), these other cinematic works dive much deeper to reveal an astonishing panoply of real-life people whose widely diverging lives somehow manage to intersect at the Sea's imposing, heat-glossed shores.

"It's a mood and an internal feeling that you get when you step into Bombay Beach that I was trying to capture; it's a side of America that I feel I've never seen," says Alma Ha'rel, whose Bombay Beach won the Unanimous Vote of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival Jury for its "beauty, lyricism, empathy and invention." Ha'rel picked three rather unlikely subjects for her film study: an octogenarian man named Red; a little boy named Benny who's been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; and Ceejay, an aspiring high school football player who has recently moved to the Salton Sea to escape inner-city gang violence in Los Angeles.

Ha'rel's film, along with Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea and Into The Wild, stand as a testimony to the human spirit to invent, dream, and thrive, even in the face of, or perhaps as an antidote to, the type of sweltering isolation and adversities imposed by the extreme heat, widespread fish die-offs that fill its beaches with carcasses and bones, and continued threats to its sustainable future, for humans and wildlife - including the thousands of migratory birds that winter there, among them, a small band of pink flamingos that are believed to have escaped from a San Diego Zoo some years ago.

Ha'rel finds common threads in the lives of each of these main subjects of her film, and ties their stories of hope and perseverance together with the power of beautifully-rendered dance sequences imbedded throughout the film to the music of Bob Dylan and the band, Beirut. " I shot many of the scenes at sunset," she says. "There is something really magical about that place. You just have to go there to see it for yourself." Bombay Beach is currently being screened to enthusiastic audiences throughout the U.K.

"Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea," has a slightly different vision of the human element of the Salton Sea than Ha'rel does, and imparts a slightly more ironic and sometimes humorous view of some of the people he interviews in his film, but that doesn't detract from the film's integrity. "I have huge affection for the offbeat and quirky, and the Salton Sea was my fantasyland come true," says Metzler. The film was recently shown on PBS SoCal, and will be screened free of charge for desert-area residents this fall at the Coachella Valley Historical Museum in nearby Indio.

And, the academy award nominated biographical drama film Into the Wild (2007), produced by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch, Kristin Stewart, Marcia Gay Harden, along with other luminaires. The film, based on the best-selling biographical novel of the same name by author Jon Krakauer, places many of its key scenes in Salton City as it follows the Thoreau-styled search for individual truth and meaning made by 22-year-old protagonist Christopher McCandless, an Emory University graduate who leaves his wealthy family behind to pursue his own brand of rugged survivalist. The passion and authenticity of McCandless's journey are deeply imparted upon the people he meets while spending several months in Salton City; not surprisingly, the film continues to gain a widespread following, especially among a young adult audience.

One of the film's most memorable sequences, at a landmark located at the northwestern shore of the Salton Sea, shows McCandless running up a steep, rugged desert mountain at Travertine Point as he leads a lonely, 83-year-old retiree named Franz to a place where they can look out across the sea, not exactly someone would expect to see in the middle of one of the world's most foreboding deserts. But there it is, sparkling blue and clean and true and clear, forever imprinted into memory.

Just like the Salton Sea itself, and the stories of those who some might consider social outcasts or misfits, who reinvent themselves every day just as the makers of the one-of-a-kind yet somehow universally appealing films Bombay Beach, Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea, and Into the Wild impart, upon us all, the revealing and relevant stories of people whose lives flow along the sea's shores and raise their voices into one, never to be entirely submerged, or forgotten, and somehow, against all odds, are somehow brought to the big screen, even bigger than life itself, in places least expected. Just like the Salton Sea, itself.

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