'Escapes': Film Review

Courtesy of Grasshopper Film
A thoughtful portrait of a man full of stories.

Michael Almereyda's episodic doc introduces the onetime actor who helped bring Philip K. Dick to the big screen.

One gets the feeling, in Escapes, that dancer turned actor turned filmmaker Hampton Fancher is used to having younger creative folks hanging on his every word. And also the feeling, as we piece together the chronology of what we learn here, that any film hoping to really cover the man's biography without omitting anything interesting would have to be very, very long. Director Michael Almereyda, trying to do justice to his subject's storytelling voice but also to the scope of a life, settles on the essay film format in this enjoyable doc, which touches on everything from flamenco to Blade Runner and leaves us wanting more. Sandwiched in between the two most accessible features the director has made (2015's Experimenter and the upcoming Marjorie Prime), this is tailor-made for arthouses, and gets a timely boost in interest from Fancher's involvement in the much-anticipated Blade Runner 2049.

The bare bones of Fancher's life: Born in 1938, the East L.A. boy left school at 11, renamed himself Mario Montejo at 13, and ran away to Barcelona to pursue a career as a flamenco dancer. He was soon back in California, where he stumbled into an acting career and shot innumerable TV shows alongside a few obscure features. He had romances with Teri Garr and Barbara Hershey; when he was 25 and she was 17, he was briefly married to Lolita star Sue Lyon. After giving up acting in hopes of writing and directing, he was a key player in optioning Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and writing the screenplay that became Blade Runner.

As Almereyda approaches it, though, the film begins with a long chapter (one of seven, plus a coda) recounting the difficulty Fancher had being poor while dating an actress (Garr) experiencing the beginnings of success — how his jealousy and insecurity ended in violence, arrest and an odd kind of fame among professional ditch-diggers.

As we listen to Fancher tell this story in voiceover, the director keeps him entirely offscreen, illustrating the action with clips from movies and TV. He surprises us (as he will in subsequent episodes) with the appropriateness of the snippets he finds — cutting, say, a calm image of Garr in one performance with an angry one of Fancher from some 1960s guest spot. Later, comic-book panels and other source material augment the film clips; some chapters strip Fancher's voice out entirely, some embrace it.

It isn't until the third chapter that Fancher addresses us on camera, starting a long anecdote he says he's ashamed to tell, in which he manipulates an unsophisticated girl for what he admits are "utilitarian" reasons. He seems to be adrift at moments, adding details we don't need or incorrectly assessing our level of interest. But Almereyda knows what he's doing, and the payoff is more than worth the wait.

The filmmaker seems to set himself formal challenges here partly as a way to make sense of his sometimes-micro, sometimes-macro view of his charismatic subject's life. Bit by bit, the episodes connect to the title's stated theme, even if some of the "escapes" in question weren't necessarily desirable to Fancher himself. Pulling the complicated character of Philip K. Dick into the film in the second half only makes those connections more resonant, while giving Blade Runner fans just enough new background and production trivia to appease them.

 

Production company: Survival Media

Distributor: Grasshopper Film

Director-Screenwriter-Producer: Michael Almereyda

Executive producer: Wes Anderson

Director of photography-Editor: Piibe Kolka

Venue: IFC Center

 

88 minutes

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