“I was hoping we’d grown up.”
Rupert, in Rupert’s Land
“carlish”: Of or pertaining to a carl or carls; churlish, clownish, vulgar, coarse, rude, mean.
—Oxford English Dictionary
I believe that there are a lot of people who deserve Viking funerals or burials at sea to honour their passing. Such ceremonies are not just for heroes. It’s not an exclusive club. To qualify, one simply has to have demonstrated a love for water and been a decent human being. Even with our flaws, blind spots, moments of stunning lack of inspiration, and regrets, most of us manage to leave the world a better place for our presence and deserve a maritime wake if we so wish one.
Carl is an exception.
Never actually onscreen, Carl’s is the hidden presence which haunts each of the characters in Jonathan Tammuz’s B.C.-made film Rupert’s Land (1998). Carl was a miserable failure as a human being. Heading for his funeral in Prince Rupert, people whose lives he has “touched” prepare indictments instead of eulogies. Mother Teresa said that if you judge people, you can’t love them. But she was a saint. None of the characters in Rupert’s Land could remotely be described as saints. Once they understand how badly he has messed up their lives, Carl gets a somewhat different burial at sea than he’d counted on. Rupert’s Land represents your provincial and federal tax dollars at work. Someone commented that the production of this film seemed to involve every government agency except Fisheries. That’s not much of an exaggeration. A partial list of funding and production resources includes Telefilm Canada, the NFB, British Columbia Film, the CBC, the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit Program and the then newly-created Canadian Television and Cable Fund. The manager of the video store where I rented Rupert’s Land also claimed that it was one of a small number of films financed by a short-lived government taxation scheme that saw a percentage of the take for video rentals and sales going to pay for production of new Canadian films. I’m surprised director Tammuz didn’t hit up Lions Clubs and the Salvation Army.
All told, once he’d gotten a preliminary script from Vancouverite Graeme Manson (who also co-wrote that twisted little sci-fi picture Cube), it actually took Tammuz four years to make Rupert’s Land a reality. Four years to scrounge $3million dollars (not even enough to cover the cost to shoot the film on the actual road to Prince Rupert!!—they had to use the Lower Mainland as a stand-in) for 28 days’ worth of shooting on 36 locations. Four years of work for a film that played in Vancouver theatres for one week. No wonder that Tammuz, who was Vancouver Film School’s Directing Instructor at the time, commented that “There’s a very thin line between being ambitious and being a loony.”
Was Rupert’s Land worth Tammuz’s time and your hard-earned tax bucks? Absolutely. Granted, it’s not a masterpiece. Nor is it an in-your-face exercise in style like Run Lola Run or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Its plot follows a fairly conventional road/buddy movie trajectory. But Rupert’s Land is funny, dark, crude, quirky and very much a B.C. story. Where else would someone break into a basement pot-growing operation with a hockey stick? Where else would you find redneck solstice bush parties? Where else would a character be referred to affectionately as “Emily Carr on acid”? Unless we make it possible for young filmmakers to experiment and be irreverent, we’ll be forever watching other people’s stories and never seeing our own.
But I digress. Back to Rupert and Dale, two half-brothers on a three-day road trip from Vancouver to Prince Rupert to attend the funeral of their father, Carl. Rupert (British actor Samuel West) was the product of a brief but fulgurant affair between Carl, a hard-drinking, womanizing commercial fisherman, and “Limey Liz,” a young British woman seduced by the Call of the Wild. Things end abruptly when a new woman comes into Carl’s life. Trudy, a mercenary blond, sends Liz and son packing. Liz winds up back in England. She drops her son off at a prep school, tells him to “remake himself,” and takes off to do the same. Rupert manages to follow his mother’s advice because years of torment at his brother’s hands have made a survivor out him. He becomes a solicitor. He marries his boss (“She looks….um, efficient,” comments Dale upon seeing her photo in Rupert’s wallet), probably more out of a desire for order than passion. No one back in B.C. knows a thing about his life in England.
Trudy’s son, Dale (Vancouver actor Ian Tracey), isn’t sure whether or not he wants to be a chip off the old block. His favorite pastime as a child was tormenting his brother until he snapped from the strain. Another fine example of Carl’s influence. Dale quit high school to join his father on the boat. Carl didn’t give him a choice. Dale drinks and has just cheated on his pregnant girlfriend. Both Carl’s idea of what makes a man a man. We should all be blessed with a father such as this. Mother’s not much help either. She’d left when Dale was 15, and has only gotten back in touch because she’s worried about Carl’s will. Most unfortunately for Dale, he’s still got enough imagination left to picture what it’ll be like filling dad’s boots when he has his own kids. He risks destroying his relationship with his girlfriend (played by Gabrielle Miller) because he’s afraid of the kind of father he’s going to be. At the point where his half-brother arrives from England, Dale’s subconsciously set himself on auto-destruct to rid the world of any possibility of Carl II.
True to road movie etiquette, Rupert and Dale set out for Prince Rupert in a vehicle that in real life wouldn’t make it out of the driveway. A kind of Suburban with leprosy, illegally registered as a “commercial use farm vehicle or parade float.” (Later, in an archetypal Canadian moment, the female constable who stops them on suspicion of drunken driving says, completely sincerely, “Step out of the float, please.”) Rupert and Dale start out hating one another. On the three-day drive to Prince Rupert they call up bitter old memories…and hate one another even more.
The brothers poke at old wounds until traditional male bonding occurs via a fistfight in a cold, deserted campground washroom. Their anger at one another fades as they realize that at the back of everything that has gone wrong with their lives is….Carl. The closer they get to Prince Rupert, the better they understand the lousy hand paternity dealt them. Instead of discovering the redeeming qualities under Carl’s brutish façade, they discover that the brutal façade was all there ever was. Dale’s mother sums Carl up the best when she describes how he’d taken her out camping one time and told her a wonderful story about how a pack of wolves that they observed swimming between two islands were helping to preserve an almost mystical equilibrium between predators and prey. Then he shot them.
No road movie would be complete without a supporting cast of eccentrics. Rupert’s Land has a Neanderthal trio out to get Dale for ripping off their marijuana crop, a hobo railrodder who looks like he missed the casting call for Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Cheers alumnus George Wendt as Bloat—friend of the family, ex-fisherman, professional marijuana grower, reformed Lothario, still nostalgic for the wild good old days when, in his own words, he built boats and houses and spawned wild-eyed beach babies.
The movie Smoke Signals asked the powerful question: How do we forgive our fathers? Rupert’s Land asks the somewhat more practical question: How do we sink him when his coffin won’t go down?
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
I have to admit, I thought I was going to get off easy on this one. Let’s face it, streaming services are not overburdened with obscure Canadian movies from the 90s. I didn’t anticipate much success in tracking down a copy of Rupert’s Land for a second look. But after striking out at YouTube & iTunes, lo and behold Vimeo came through. I’ll have to keep that option in mind in the future.
Watching Rupert’s Land again was like meeting up with an old friend. It’s the quintessential Canadian movie: a Vancouver-based director, some fine Canadian casting, a road trip from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, great landscape, a gumboot-wearing hippie potter chick, rusted pickup trucks, BC bud, magic mushroom tea, a redneck solstice bush party, moose crossing signs, enough family issues to keep a psychotherapist employed for years, and an overwhelming desire to catch a salmon.
Hey, I have no intentions of overthinking this. I’m sure I spoke my piece in my original review. I’ll give a shout-out to a few friends to check out Rupert’s Land while it’s still readily available. I’ll just use my space here to do some updates on the cast & crew.
Although director Jonathan Tammuz was still active in the film industry as of 2019, Rupert’s Land was the second of only two feature films he has directed. In 1990 he was nominated for an Oscar for the short film The Child Eater; in 2012 he won an award at the Lucerne International Film Festival for A Mother’s Love. Tammuz and his wife are partners in a British Columbia production company, and he teaches film at Langara College.
Composer Phil Marshall has 84 credits on Imdb. One of his earliest efforts was the soundtrack for The Warriors (1979), which I watched again a couple of year ago at a late-night showing at a repertory cinema in London, England. Cinematographer Gregory Middleton has 64 credits, his most recent work being on Watchmen and Game of Thrones. He won a Primetime Emmy for the former, and was nominated twice for the latter. He’s won the Canadian Society of Cinematographers Award four times since 1994. Film Editor Roger Matthiusi and Production Designer Brian Davie have also had solid careers.
As for the cast, all of the lead actors have had long and successful careers. English actor Samuel West has 92 acting credits on Imdb, Vancouver-born Ian Tracey has an impressive 142 credits, including DaVinci’s Inquest and Hell on Wheels. He’s had multiple nominations and four wins at the Canadian Gemini and Leo Awards. George Wendt was born & raised in Chicago; he has 152 acting credits and 6 Primetime Emmy nominations. Susan Hogan has 121 credits on Imdb. A lot of us know and love Gabrielle Miller from the CBC series Corner Gas, but she’s also one of Canada’s most respected actors, with 95 credits and multiple nominations and 5 wins at the Gemini and Leo Awards. The impressive resumes continue with much of Rupert Land’s supporting cast. Casting Director Wendy O’Brien knew what she was doing, and has continued her fine work on 122 films and TV shows.