The Waters of ‘The Salton Sea’

150 miles outside of Los Angeles, drying up in the unforgiving sun of the Colorado Desert, lies the Salton Sea. The lake is an enigmatic and powerfully symbolic place. Once California’s largest freshwater lake, it now has a salinity higher than that of the Pacific Ocean. [1] It was created by an accident of town planning, when early irrigation trenches to agricultural land in the region silted up, causing the Colorado River to burst its banks. The newly formed lake became a luxury yachting and boating development in the 1960s and was marketed as a playground for LA’s rich weekenders. Now the luxury hotels and marinas have been abandoned. The eerie, desolate landscape, an erstwhile draw for tourists and wetlands wildlife, has become a ruin, a remnant, and an ecological disaster area. Agricultural run-off has rendered the bottom of the lake, and its parched shores, a cauldron of poisonous dust.[2]
A much over-looked, eponymous film, directed by D.J. Caruso, and released to little fanfare in 2002, provides me with fertile ground for exploring the Salton Sea in the American imaginary. The Salton Sea follows Tom Van Allen, who, after the murder of his wife on the shores of the lake by hooded drug traffickers, becomes a drug addict and police snitch, in order to track down his wife’s killers. Liquids play a central and varied role in Caruso’s film. I am particularly interested in how the film uses water and other fluids to present the lake as a place in flux.
Water has long been an issue for Los Angeles. Norman Klein writes about the building of the myth of the LA climate, and describes how the Boosterism of the nineteenth century largely whitewashed LA’s idiosyncratic water and drainage issues in advertising and other forms of mass media. He lists droughts, putrid smelling, malfunctioning sewers, and widespread flooding and landslides in the rainy season as just some of the forgotten issues surrounding the city and its waterways.[3] Images of drains and drought in Caruso’s film bring this other side of the metropolis to light. They tell the story of LA’s water supply and provide an unusual visual vocabulary for the narrative of Los Angeles.
Firstly, water fits in to the film’s central elemental metaphor: the symbolism of fire and water as two parts of Tom Van Allen’s personality. Water is associated with the pleasant notions of the past: music and love; fire (with which the film opens) is aligned with Tom’s alter ego: tattooed junkie Danny Parker. Perhaps unusually, life-giving water is associated with the past and death. The murder of Tom’s wife, the filmic Original Sin, which we only see late in the film, takes place on the Salton Sea, when the lake is still fecund. Whenever Tom thinks of the Salton Sea, the landscape is dreamlike, presented as a kind of prelapsarian haven. Water here symbolises past plenty, love and the fluidity of memory. Tom daydreams his early life with his wife on the banks of the still lake at sunset. These scenes are projected onto the walls of his apartment, covering the space, and Tom’s body, in liquid waves (Fig. 1). The Salton Sea becomes a kind of Stygian lake in the Colorado Desert, which connects the living with the dead. This kind of liminality is presented as positive. Water links Tom to the memory of his dead wife elsewhere as well. It gushes out of sprinklers when he visits her grave at the LA cemetery. Water is also a passageway backward in a more general sense; Tom washes Danny Parker off with water, removing green hair dye, and restoring his old persona (Fig. 2).

Furthermore, water and fluids in the film are associated with border protectionism and urban decay. They connote drug use, blood, murder, waste, and drainage and many of the anxieties of race and place that accompany urban blight debates. Addiction, crime and urban degeneration in the Downtown LA area have been well documented and feature in Noir literature and film. [4] Here, however, urban blight lies outside the bounds of the city, in the Salton Sink. The Salton Sea depicts decay as drought. The lake itself is a salty quagmire, full of dead fish. In the city-proper, water is replaced with flowing alcohol (Fig. 3), the blood of drug dealing junkies dripping into drains (Fig. 4), and the blood of innocent victims, like Tom’s wife (Fig. 5). These bodies, like the Salton Sea, are spilling their fluids and drying up. The film invites us to read drug use as a visual metaphor representing the anxieties surrounding migration. Liquids are again passageways, allowing for a flow and exchange of foreign bodies. This other kind of liminality is, however, portrayed as undesirable. The issue of border-crossing is linguistically connected to water when racist policemen refer to one Mexican trafficker as a ‘Wetback’, further underlining the link between watery spaces and border control.
In and around LA, wasted, dripping fluids threaten the protagonist and his city. There is a preponderance of shots showing drains, blood, beer, and water being spilt, as well as receding puddles at the Salton Sea (Fig. 6) and dead fish out of water on the shores of the lake (Fig. 7). On one level, this is facile symbolism, mirroring Tom’s psychological mood. However, on a more philosophical level, the visuals of drainage and drought suggest wider environmental concerns surrounding the issue of waste. Psychology highlights ecology: the fear of the encroaching desert and, particularly pertinent in 2002, the issue of climate change. In the following four-year period films like The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) and An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) would begin to address the issue of climate change head on. The dichotomy of self, the crisis of identity at the heart of The Salton Sea, is in equal measure LA’s crisis: caught between the desert and the Pacific Ocean, relying on outmoded fuel sources, in an environment unable to sustain its insatiable thirst – for water, oil, and profit. Shots of pumpjacks (Fig. 8) foreground the theme of thirst and waste. In this context, the Salton Sea hangs like a ghost, the city’s future self, a threat and a warning.
The filmic Salton Sea is, therefore, the point at which many anxieties mix and merge. Environmental dis-ease and urban decay are mingled in the waters of the lake, as are anxieties around borders, identity, trauma, and memory. The lake is a perfect cipher for these issues as it exists, slowly evaporating, on the edge of LA; sufficiently other and yet uncannily connected to the city, it functions as an urban unconscious, where the anxieties of the city-proper can be safely played out, metaphorised and symbolised.

[1] For a thorough account and more information on the historical environmental issues surrounding land development and water supply to the Salton Sea, see: Mcclurg, Sue, ‘The Salton Sea’, Water Education Foundation, March/April 1993, pp.3-11, (Accessed 24/2/15)
[2] Berg, Nate, ‘The Salton Sea: An accidental Oasis-turned-Environmental Tragedy’, Changing City, May 2013, (Accessed 24/2/15)
[3] Klein, Norman M., The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and The Erasure of Memory, London, New York: Verso, 2008, p. 33
[4] Klein, Norman M., The History of Forgetting, pp. 51-58

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