Saturday, November 13, 2010

92 IN THE SHADE (1975)

To set the stage for novelist-screenwriter Thomas McGuane's directorial debut, Wikipedia relates that McGuane's first wife left him to marry his star, Peter Fonda, while McGuane himself married Fonda's romantic interest, Margot Kidder, and had an affair with another actress in the film, Elizabeth Ashley. To this volatile mix add Seventies stalwarts Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton. The film doesn't live up to the set-up.

McGuane, who had written the screenplay for Arthur Penn's The Missouri Breaks, here adapted one of his own novels. 92 in the Shade chronicles the feud between fishing guides Tom Skelton (Fonda) and Nicholas Dance (Oates). Dance is sometimes suicidal and reputedly homicidal. When he goes to jail for attacking a man, Skelton exploits the vacuum to get a job from wharf boss Carter (Stanton) guiding a vacuous old couple. Dance's stay in stir is short, however, and while Skelton is following a line into marshy waters to fetch a trophy for his client, Dance and Carter reclaim the clients and leave Skelton in the water. To them it's all a big joke, but Skelton tops them by burning Dance's boat.

"If it costs a cent to rent a tuxedo for an elephant, I couldn't rent a t-shirt for a flea." Warren Oates in Thomas McGuane's 92 in the Shade.

Dance doesn't exactly go berserk, but he does warn Skelton not to guide anymore in his territory, on pain of death. Undeterred, Skelton gets money from his cranky attorney of a grandfather (Burgess Meredith) to get a boat of his own built. Despite Dance's matter-of-fact reminders of his ban, Skelton intends to make the awkward, eccentric Ollie Slatt (Joe Spinell) his first client, forcing Dance to back up his threat if he can....

As a beginner, Joe Spinell must learn that fishing is something you do to the fish, not with it.
To spoil things, it seems that McGuane bowdlerized his own source material. In the novel, Wikipedia says, Dance follows through and kills Skelton. In the film, the men struggle on board Skelton's boat while Slatt jumps ship, but Skelton disarms Dance and chucks his gun into the water. The rivals then settle down to finish the film with Peckinpavian laughter. Between novel and film came a life-threatening, life-changing car crash. It may have altered not only McGuane's attitude toward his art (he began screenwriting after recovering) but his attitude toward the story -- though a reported alternative ending may betray some indecision. The anticlimax, following an ineptly filmed scuffle, fits the laid-back if not passed-out spirit of the picture. The film is all novelistic observation of eccentric personalities and their relationships, with little sense of dramatic urgency despite the inherent credibility (or as he says here, "credence") of Warren Oates's threats. He can make laid-back threats and have them taken seriously, except if the director himself ultimately refuses to do so. That may be a deliberate authorial strategy, but it leaves the film begging the question, "So what?"

The answer should be that we've enjoyed a rich slice of regional life and shared the experiences of colorful characters, but McGuane stretches himself too thin accommodating too many eccentric personalities, all of whom probably have a proper place in the novel. In the film, however, there doesn't seem to be a point to Mrs. Carter's (Ashley) obsession with her cheerleading past, her determination to impress people with her enduring baton-twirling skills, or Carter's opposition to her doing so. Likewise, the grandfather-grandson dynamic of pride and dependence between Meredith and Fonda leaves room for Skelton's actual father who, being played by William Hickey, is just another weirdo. McGuane may have thematic reasons for including these oddballs and their obsessions, but whenever these characters reappear the movie loses a lot of what little focus it had.

As a novelist, director McGuane is predictably fond of long-take dialogue scenes. Here's one with typically eccentric details between Margot Kidder and Peter Fonda.
If McGuane gets anything right as a first-and-only-time director, it's atmosphere. 92 in the Shade has a grungy, lived-in quality and a good feel for the principals' working environment. The best scene in the movie may be Skelton's long day with that boorish, bickering old couple, culminating in his long tracking of the line through the marsh and climaxing in the disappearance of his clients. It's the sort of extended anecdote that might have been extended further into a coherent feature in its own right. As a whole, however, McGuane falters somewhere between extended anecdote and novelistic closure. Despite an incredible cast, the performances aren't enough to justify a story that ultimately lacks a point. Lacking a point isn't necessarily a problem, except that McGuane apparently meant to make one.


Myra said...

I need to see this. Peter Fonda is my kind of hot!

Anonymous said...

Myra, you are my kind of hot.