Salmonberries stars k.d. lang, an openly lesbian, vegetarian country singer. She fit right in in Kotzebue. The name of her character in the film is “Kotzebue,” as well. The basic plot of the movie is that a woman who had been discovered as a baby in a crate of salmonberries shipped to Germany returns to Kotzebue where she has an affair with a German woman who works in the library. At the beginning of the film Lang’s character appears to be working in a mine near the city of Kotzebue.
I have never been to the Red Dog mine, but I suspect that the mine scenes were not shot there.
Watching Salmonberries has been on my list of things to do since its 1991 release. It wasn’t available on Netflix — they have an entry for it so that you can have it put in your queue automatically when they finally add it to their library. I found Salmonberries on Amazon streaming video and watched about half of it while I was waiting for my plane in the Phoenix airport this fall. I was not inspired enough by the movie to find time to finish it. A week later I got an email from Amazon telling me that they were worried that network performance had affected my enjoyment of the film and were refunding my $2.99.
The movie was really pretty horrible. It had too much art and not enough plot. Huge blocks of time are dedicated to the main character throwing books around in the library. There was a cool surreal quality and some dramatic lighting, but the film didn’t have any of the feel of the real Kotzebue — I guess there are only about 3500 people who would care about that.
Percy Adlon, the writer and director of Salmonberries is most famous for the film Bagdad Cafe. We watched Bagdad Cafe recently and Aida and my Mom very much enjoyed it. With Bagdad Cafe the characters are quirky and interesting and the whole film is infused with humor. Salmonberries is Bagdad Cafe’s awkward and over-serious brooding little sister.
The idea that salmonberries might be shipped in a box large enough to contain a baby fascinates me. There is no commercial salmonberry production in Kotzebue. It takes forever to pick the berries out on the tundra. I made salmonberry jam a couple of times when I lived in Kotzebue, but in general tundra blueberries or cranberries give a better payoff for your effort. I can thank Adlon for the fun of imagining what a salmonberry export company would be like.
One day my dad and I went to the Nullagvik Cafe to have breakfast. On the ground floor of the hotel of the same name, the Nullagvik had a great wall of windows along front street which made for an excellent view of the icepack on Kotzebue Sound. Chuck Connors was enjoying his breakfast there, my dad nudged me and pointed out “the Rifleman.” My dad had watched a lot of The Rifleman as a kid and had been enthusiastic when reruns came on when I was a kid. Chuck Connors also played a great role in Bagdad Cafe. His role in Salmonberries was surreal.
There is a love scene in the movie. While I’m sure it was filmed on a sound stage in Hollywood, I’m told that the outside shots of the house where it takes place were taken outside the rectory of the Friends Church in Kotzebue. I don’t recognize it myself. The town of Kotzebue, like most rural places, is moderately to seriously homophobic. The Friends Church is one of the most conservative (for lack of a more precise word) church in Kotzebue. The crew of the film didn’t really let the people of the city know that it was a lesbian love story they were filming. This dishonesty doesn’t sink to the level of Sacha Baron Cohen’s treatment of the Romanian village but it was still condescending and disrespectful.
Condescension was the overriding feeling that the movie crew gave me as a person living in Kotzebue at the time. When I mentioned Salmonberries to my mom she said she thought she remembers the Arctic Sounder quoting a cast member as saying, “do you know who we are.”
The most memorable part of the interaction between Hollywood and Kotzebue was when a reporter from the Sounder asked Lang for her thoughts on subsistence hunting rights. Lang replied that she didn’t see any reason that people should kill animals when they can buy Cheese Whiz in the grocery store.
One of my dad’s coworkers at Maniilaq counseling services was a woman from the west coast who liked to do yoga on her desk with her door open. My family was invited to a party at her house along with some of my dad’s other coworkers. One of the guests at the party was a member of the Salmonberries crew. He was from L.A. but he had spent time in Alaska before and had been hired as a sort of local liaison and to do logistics for the film crew. He went on at length about his love for bears and tried to dispel a lot of what he saw as misconceptions about these gentle, beautiful animals. As an example of their true nature he claimed to have watched sunsets with bears.
My experience with the Salmonberries crew was not all negative. One day when I was home alone some representatives of the film crew showed up at the door and asked if they could rent our boat. Apparently they were filming a scene at the rec center and wanted it to look like everyone had arrived there on boats; they were putting together a crowd of boats in the parking lot. My dad wasn’t entirely happy to find out that I had let some strangers haul our boat away. He did see some humor in it though and they brought it back a few hours later. The scene was in part of the movie I didn’t make it to so I haven’t had a chance to witness our boat’s moment of fame.