The Savage Stack - 92 IN THE SHADE (1975)

Thomas McGuane's boozy fishing purgatory is one of the great unsung character pieces from the 70s.

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The forty-second entry into this unbroken backlog is the boozy, languid Florida fisherman character piece, 92 In the Shade...

A man must keep his "creedence", even when he finds himself locked in a purgatory of his own choosing. Such is the throughline of novelist-cum-filmmaker Thomas McGuane's sole feature directorial effort, 92 In the Shade ('75) -- a languid Florida Keys character study which sees a collection of losers circling the drain, even as the sun continues to shine, tanning their already leathery skin. The life of a fishing guide is one of cutthroat repetition, as McGuane invites us onto their tiny motorboats and takes us out to sea, allowing the audience to cast their own line and take in the surroundings. The blues, greens, and slowly setting sun amalgamate into a beautiful Southern America tableau, as we scan the warm, clear waters for trophies. But the stink of gasoline and corruption starts to fill our noses the longer we stay out with these dead end men, who aren't really bothered by the fact that if they don't kill each other first, skin, lung or liver disease will surely snatch up their lives and whisk them away from the current oasis they wait for death in. 

Tom Skelton (Peter Fonda) is a rich kid out of his element, and our entry point into this Hellman-esque microcosm of rickety boats and wood paneled bars. His grandfather (Burgess Meredith) owns the bank, the police force, and refuses to eat any sort of "nigger food" (see: cheap white fish and a salad) that his mistress/secretary (Sylvia Miles) cooks up. Skelton's father (William Hickey) is a lazy prince, self-confined to an outdoor bug tent bed whose shade he pulls whenever his own papa comes 'round. The two patriarchs are just glad the wayward youth's found himself a hobby here at home, as it doesn't matter if he ever makes any money. They've got enough to cover Tom for the rest of his life. But Young Master Skelton wants to make a blue collar business for himself; a privileged boy's way of rebelling against the moneybags which raised him (though he certainly isn't above taking a stake loan from his elders). It's just Tom and his schoolteacher lady (Margot Kidder) adrift in the real world, not a care in the world. 

Nichol Dance (Warren Oates) and his pal Carter (Harry Dean Stanton) are two sharks who already call the ocean home -- hard, self-made men who aren't content letting this guppie swim into their pool. Carter's got a floozy wife (Elizabeth Ashley) spending all his money on nonsense at home, and Nichol is simply a beaten soul on his last leg, quick to attack one of his charters and stab him with a hook should he say the wrong thing. They resent this kid for his brash entrance into their world, but meet his presence with a sort of playful acceptance, hazing him by stealing his first client. A hot head who's never had a toy taken from him, Tom retaliates by blowing up Nichol's boat, igniting a fire in the hardened fisherman's belly that Nichol's not so sure he can put out without seeking blood. 

As welcome an actor as there ever was, Fonda still feels slightly miscast as Skelton, as everyone keeps talking about him like he's a spoiled teenager (Fonda was thirty-five when 92 In the Shade was produced). That doesn't stop the Easy Rider ('69) icon from conveying a bratty devil-may-care vibe (which he could pretty much do in his sleep by this point in his career); it's just that others' perceptions of Tom are quite incongruous with the optics (though, in the novel, Skelton's a recovering addict -- something that's never really touched on in McGuane's movie) . However, Oates and Stanton are visually perfect as the pair of working men, eager to chase this boy off their territory as they both continue their slow downward spiral. Oates brings Dance to life with his usual playful verve, attempting to discover the right balance between a Biblical sense of right and wrong, while maintaining his personal "creedence" code of honor. Stanton, on the other hand, gets to portray a side-eyeing imp, as Carter is constantly egging Nichol to take violent action (especially once Tom's grandfather makes Dance wait an extended period for the insurance payout). The two breathe life into this idiosyncratic gamesman's enviroment the same way they did with Hellman's Cockfighter ('74), owning a rough and tumble con man attitude as they tackle this invading bully. 

The weathered authenticity of Dance and Carter offsets the empty curiosty of Skelton, placing the duo at odds with his money (which, in turn, becomes power). However physically wrong for the part, casting Fonda as the foil for these two blue collar skiff guides subverts his rebellious, biker image; the smiley performer becoming the Establishment side of a narrative that's never really been his. This helps make up for the weird gap between Skelton's age and Fonda's appearance, and watching him spar with Oates (whom the actor would appear in many movies as a sidekick to -- most notably in The Hired Hand ['71] and Race With the Devil ['75]) is a delight. McGuane's adaptation of his own novel has a great ear for the punchy speeches between Oates and Stanton's compatriots, while also capturing the emptiness of Fonda and Kidder's characters' relationship. All of these individuals are charming on their own, but McGuane distinctly gets how listening to the differences in dialogue can often define people's stations in life. 

92 In the Shade is going to appeal to a very specific sort of cinephile -- those who revel in these sort of languid character studies, where plot is almost always secondary to observing the ways these men and women approach existence and influence their enviroment. But even within that relam of New Hollywood jankiness, McGuane's barely there narrative may prove taxing unless you're fully invested in letting the Florida sun beat down on your face, and tasting the salt that wafts in over an ocean breeze. We know from the outset that there's not going to be a great outcome for anyone involved, so its ostensibly a matter of allowing inevitable doom roll in with the tide for these stiff joes; a hurricane of moral turpitude that will surely wash a few souls out when it recedes. 

92 In the Shade is currently available on DVD, courtesy of Scorpion Releasing. 

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