The Imperial Valley’s Salton Sea has become the mother of all metaphors — a cautionary ecology fable, a symbol of real-estate schemes gone bust and the California Dream turned to alkaline dust. Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer’s documentary Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, narrated with surprising empathy by John Waters and making its local premiere as part of this year’s Silver Lake Film Festival, is a historically thorough and thoroughly hysterical examination of the big, smelly desert lake’s formation (breached Colorado River levy), its tourist heyday (1960s) and the grim odds against revitalization (high salinity from agricultural runoff, massive fish and bird die-offs). Interviews conducted all around the sea focus on the mostly elderly locals — notably a profane, drunken Hungarian known as Hunky Daddy — along with fish-and-game wardens, and kids from Bombay Beach’s growing African-American community. The young blacks seem marooned in this blasted desert oasis, yet more poignant is their palpable fear of the violent Los Angeles they fled.
While many of us see ourselves as the hero in our own life’s cinema, few are as lucky as Jack Clement, the country-music producer (Johnny Cash, Charley Pride) and songwriter (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” “Guess Things Happen That Way”) whose real-life home movies and videos document a half-century working with the likes of Sam Phillips, Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton. Filmmakers Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan: Cowboy Jack Clement’s Home Movies, also screening in the Silver Lake lineup, follows the bawdy 74-year-old raconteur around Nashville and excerpts generous footage from Clement’s extensive archives. Phillips’ major domo at Sun Records when Elvis Presley first showed up there, Clement reminisces about discovering Jerry Lee Lewis, shoots the breeze with George Jones and holds interstellar conversations with a Shakespeare cartoon. There is an inevitable sadness in watching Clement and friends, now so late in their years, trading old stories and sipping from water bottles, but the documentary also easily communicates the giddy spirit of country music après Hank Williams. And who can resist the sight of Johnny Cash smoking a cigarette on country patriarch A.P. Carter’s grave? (ArcLight and other venues; thru March 31. www.silverlakefilmfestival.org)