Not only is Hampton Fancher a great storyteller, but he’s got great stories. He’s the kind of guy who just needs a name or a location and a thousand memories spring to mind, some of which he’s not willing to share with the public. A couple of times in the film, Fancher catches himself before he goes too far and says something he shouldn’t, which is a shame, because, as we all know, those are the best stories. With a such a long career in the movie business and loose lips that would make a sea captain shudder, Fancher’s life story can only be a riotous, eyebrow-raising romp, right? Not necessarily.
“…the interviews feel more like a conversation with a buddy over a cheeseburger, rather than a stuffy 60 Minutes piece.”
Escapes, a documentary directed by Michael Almereyda and produced by Wes Anderson, attempts to cover the entire breadth of Fancher’s life, from his abrupt move to Spain as a teenager— where he assumed the name of Mario Montejo and took up flamenco dancing—all the way to his screenplay work on last year’s “Blade Runner 2049.” In between, he married Sue Lyon, had an acting career in the TV western circuit and Philip K. Dick tried to steal his girlfriend. Oh, and it was Fancher’s idea to bring Dick’s novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?,” to the big screen. His is truly a fascinating life, worthy of documenting, but not like this.
From the very beginning, the film employs an odd technique. To accentuate the audio of a rambling Fancher, going on and on about Teri Garr, Almereyda chooses to fill the screen with clips from various films and TV shows that match the beats in Fancher’s story. For instance, if Fancher mentions his brief stint as a ditch digger, we’ll see footage of Fancher mopping floors in one of his TV roles. It’s as if Almereyda thinks the audience needs visual assistance in understanding Fancher’s stories—”ditch digging is a form of physical labor, like mopping.” Used sparingly, the gimmick would have been harmless and even a little sly, but when you splice together a 30-minute anecdote using a series of five-second clips from random sources, my sanity takes a hit. It’s both distracting and narratively impotent.
“…surrounds its interesting subject with half-baked narrative devices, none of which accentuate his story, so much as they drown it out.”
Thankfully, the technique dissipates somewhat as the film progresses and we actually get to see Fancher in front of the camera. This is where the film finds its footing, because Fancher is able to connect with the audience as a storyteller, which is his gift, after all. As he rattles on, there’s something earnest and unpretentious in the way he recounts the events of his life. This runs contrary to the great Robert Evans documentary, The Kid Stays in the Picture, in which it feels like Evans is rewriting his life as a Homeric epic. Part of this authentic impression is, perhaps, due to Almereyda’s decision to keep the interviews with Fancher relatively unedited, or so it seems. At one point, he stands up in the middle of a story and goes completely out of frame. It works, because the interviews feel more like a conversation with a buddy over a cheeseburger, rather than a stuffy “60 Minutes” piece.
There are better ways for the tale of Hampton Fancher to be told, but I guess Escapes will have to do for now. Watching the film is often frustrating, but only because it surrounds its interesting subject with half-baked narrative devices, none of which accentuate his story, so much as they drown it out.
Escapes (2017) Directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Hampton Fancher.
2.5 out of 5