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Capturing the apocalyptic charms of the Salton Sea

December 13, 2007|Margaret Wappler

ECOLOGICAL disaster and comedy are unlikely bedfellows, but that's the oddball spirit of the documentary "Plagues & Pleasures on the Salton Sea." Directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, USC film school graduates, balance shots of beaches covered in rotting fish with characters such as Naked Don, a leather-skinned nudevangelist who stood starkers on the roadside to promote peace.

"The Salton Sea is an apocalyptic paradise, a Californian carnival of utopia," says Metzler, who has been promoting the 75-minute documentary around the country. Tonight, he and Springer stop in Echo Park with their film, which has won dozens of awards on the festival circuit and aired on the Sundance Channel.

California's largest lake had a heyday in the '50s as a resort similar to nearby Palm Springs, but political neglect and geographic misfortune conspired to make the polluted sea inhospitable to most life.

That is, except for the motley bunch who converted the surrounding communities -- Niland, Salton City and Bombay Beach -- into sun-baked respites from the average grind. One of the most colorful is Hunky Daddy, a Hungarian Revolution "freedom fighter" who can be found on his porch, drinking Milwaukee's Best and shouting at passersby.

John Waters provides dry but thoughtful narration, though at first, the directors worried the auteur was too associated with camp. "I re-watched some of his films and I realized Waters has always been about social critique, of showing those who live differently," Metzler says.

For those inspired to help the area, Metzler has one piece of advice: "Just jump in your car and visit. It's the easiest way to help the place . . . and it's way weirder than we could've ever caught on film."

-- Margaret.Wappler@latimes.com

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Five local docs worth renting

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Andersen): The CalArts film professor examines the city's thorny relationship with its most visible industry.

Bastards of the Party (Cle Sloan): Sloan, a former member of the Bloods, tracks the history of black gangs in Los Angeles.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (Nanette Burstein and Brett Morgen): Whiskey-voiced studio head Robert Evans narrates his own tale of sodden adventures and last-minute Hollywood triumphs.

Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story (Jordan Mechner): Narrated by Cheech Marin and scored by Ry Cooder, the short film tells how this Mexican American enclave was uprooted for housing projects and then Dodger Stadium.

The Mayor of Sunset Strip (George Hickenlooper): There's no shortage of L.A. music docs, but this one spans all the scenes, through the eyes of impresario hanger-on Rodney Bingenheimer.

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'PLAGUES & PLEASURES

ON THE SALTON SEA'

WHERE: Echo Park Film Center, 1200 N. Alvarado St., L.A.

WHEN: 8 tonight

PRICE: $5

INFO: (213) 484-8846, echoparkfilmcenter.org

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