A preoccupation with the totemic materiality of cinema runs through Michael Almereyda’s Escapes. The documentary is driven by a series of interviews with former TV actor and screenwriter Hampton Fancher, who’s most famous for co-writing Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and its forthcoming sequel, Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049. Almereyda builds to Fancher’s discussion of the original film, a project he initiated, implicitly likening it to an inevitable fruit of Fancher’s obsessions. Enthralled with movies and searching for an identity, Fancher fashioned himself into one of those adventurers and about-towners who live more in a year than many do in decades.
Born in 1938 in East Los Angeles to parents who moved around during World War II, Fancher developed an early interest in flamenco dancing and studied with Pablo Reyes of the Gipsy Kings. Throughout his teens, Fancher ran away to Spain and New York City, where he tried to open a school for dance and was embroiled in an affair with the wife of a police officer who would go on to threaten him at gunpoint. Fancher is charismatic and intelligent, and was unsurprisingly unable to stay contained in school, as he had a preternatural understanding of adult life at an early age. In pictures taken of him as a teenager, Fancher is already a strapping and strikingly handsome man who’s suggestive of Tyrone Power, only a little rougher around the edges.
Culture encourages us to prioritize conventional success, after which we can theoretically live our lives with the freedom attained by money. Fancher’s oral autobiography refutes this insidious tenant of capitalism, as he traveled the world and lived a variety of lives on daring and will. He worked as a bit player in shows like Bonanza, and Almereyda stitches together snippets of Fancher’s performances, playfully re-contextualizing them as a visual equivalent of his stories. Escapes opens with a long and spellbinding recollection of Fancher’s relationship with Teri Garr, which occurred as his TV career was drying up. Fancher and Garr’s respective performances are pitted against one another, creating a friction between separate filmographies that reveals a tumultuous interiority to exist under the hood of pop culture.
The great and freeing irony of Fancher’s life, as presented by himself and Almereyda, is that his life is his art, which will strike many painfully introverted and closed-off artists as more than a fair trade. It takes insane and extraordinary chutzpah to run away to New York City at 16, and this is but one of hundreds of such fanciful curlicues in the narrative of Fancher’s life. Fancher, a ladies’ man, was briefly married to Sue Lyon not too long after her appearance in Lolita and was later in a relationship with Barbara Hershey, who encouraged him to pursue what would become Blade Runner. In one of Escapes’s most moving stories, Fancher seduces a small-town Pennsylvania woman who accompanies him on a promotional campaign for a film, out of boredom and a fear that he won’t make his departing flight on time.
Almereyda divides Escapes into seven sections, many with lurid titles such as “The Brain Eaters” and “The Stranger Who Looks Like Me,” the latter of which details Fancher’s friendship with Flipper star Brian Kelly, another cocksman who would play an unlikely role in Blade Runner’s inception. These sections are defined by distinctly contrasting aesthetics, as the tight juxtaposition between archive footage and Fancher’s aural recollections gradually loosens. “The Brain Eaters” is composed of a mixture of on-screen text, photos, and comic-book stills that cast Fancher’s adventures in a mold of pop myth. The exhilaratingly precise and syncopated editing here suggests an attempt to visually channel the free-ranging expressiveness of Fancher’s voice, mixing the personal with the borrowed remnants of pop culture. The film eventually pares itself down, centering on Fancher’s upper body as he faces the camera and exhibits a storyteller’s knack for minute detail and empathy.
Fancher’s vignettes are self-contained as well as circularly concentric, forming recurring patterns that aren’t unlike the structures that announce themselves throughout cinema. Preoccupied with Humphrey Bogart’s characters, Fancher would similarly wander and would help to fashion in Blade Runner a definitive wanderer who would inspire other real and imaginary Ronin. Escapes understands cinema as a series of nesting neuroses, in which our desires are rechanneled in legends that render the former puny by comparison, though our longings are the ultimate manna of said legend-hood. Cinema, then, is transcendent as well as entrapping. Fancher recalls his life and realizes that it has been governed by fear, which may flabbergast audiences. Projected on a vast, myth-enabling screen, Fancher appears fearless.