Deep Focus: 92 in the Shade, Thomas McGuane, and the Titan Warren Oates

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[In a new weekly feature for Country Life, James Cathcart, DJ, cinephile and now programmer of Third Man Records' new Light and Sound Machine film series, shares finds from the dusky celluloid recesses and online frontiers of cinema.]

I’ve rarely found much pleasure in watching films on the principle of being “so bad they’re good,” and for the sake of this column, I’d never recommend a movie that had to be viewed through a tinted lens of condescension or irony to be appreciated. That said, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a particular charm I find in a film that only reveals its merits once a viewer accepts its flaws. So if you should ever have the opportunity to be befuddled by the likes of Thomas McGuane’s 92 in the Shade, you won't accuse me of having promised Casablanca. Besides, after last week’s post on Frank Perry's Rancho Deluxe, it would be a grave omission not to shed light on its sister-film-of-sorts from the same year.

By the early 1970s, McGuane had established himself as a major new literary talent, drawing comparisons to Faulkner with his novels The Sporting Club and The Bushwhacked Piano by way of his grimly comic observations of corroded American idealism. But shortly after the publication of his third novel, Ninety-Two In The Shade, he became the narrow survivor of a grisly car accident, flipping his Porsche on an icy highway at 140 m.p.h. The event triggered the arrival of an audacious, puerile version of his former self, which he christened “Captain Berserko.”

This new McGuane acclimated to the decadent climate of 1970’s Hollywood all too well. His new persona allowed his on-set life to collide with his personal life, to spectacularly disastrous effect. The affair he started with Elizabeth Ashley on the set of Rancho Deluxe carried over to this film, but once he divorced his wife — Becky Crockett, descendant of Davy — he remarried not to Ashley but to co-star Margot Kidder.

Not one to leave home empty-handed, Crockett made off with 92 in the Shade leading man Peter Fonda, to whom she was married until 2011. McGuane and Kidder would not be as enduring an institution. They divorced a year later, with McGuane next settling down with Laurie Buffett, sister of his beach-bum drinking buddy and sometimes housemate Jimmy. Meanwhile, Ashley would chronicle the tumultuous details of their sordid tryst in her 1978 biography Actress: Postcards from the Road.

Suffice to say that while making 92 in the Shade, McGuane may have been more than a little distracted.

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Set upon the salty, sun-bleached banks of the Florida Keys — painted here as a refuge for sociopaths and lowlifes — McGuane's sole directorial outing concerns Tom Skelton (Fonda), an aspiring fishing guide. Skelton runs afoul of the local old-timers when, in retribution for some good-natured hazing, he blows up the fishing skiff of maniacal tour guide Nichol Dance, played by that titan of ’70s cinema Warren Oates.

As an actor, Oates could summon the unpredictable surliness of a crazed rattlesnake, which tended to stand out among a more even-keeled ensemble (as in Ride the High Country or In the Heat of the Night). Here, however, he barely clears the benchmark of craziness set by one of the ’70s' most gloriously gonzo casts. Back from Rancho Deluxe is the aforementioned Ashley, flanked by co-stars Harry Dean Stanton and Joe Spinell. But 92 ups the ante with Burgess Meredith, Sylvia Miles and William Hickey — each evidently competing to out-crazy the next. As the only normal character in the film, poor Margot Kidder is practically invisible.

But apart from the novelty of audacious performances, and despite McGuane’s questionable competence at the helm, 92 in the Shade conveys an air of impending danger that's faithful to the novel. Though Dance spends the movie with his Colt revolver trained on Skelton, the two are hardly warring factions. There’s an underlying mutual respect between them; perhaps they may even be “friends,” by some demented definition of the word. But when Dance promises a slug for Skelton should he encroach on his territory as a fishing guide, they become bonded by a code of misguided honor, sending them on a trajectory that — depending on which cut of the film you encounter — cannot be altered once set in motion.

An imperfect film about imperfect people, 92 in the Shade picks at the festering, infected wounds of a dysfunctional social contract. While we maintain the appearance of a nation of gentlemen, McGuane suggests, at the end of the day what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours — and should that line of demarcation ever be crossed, savagery shall ensue. In this sweat-drenched circus of unchecked ego, the boundary at which art boils over into reality — or vice versa — remains totally blurred.

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