The Truth is stranger than Fiction, and even more sensational when it comes straight from the horse’s mouth. Such is the case in Michael Almereyda’s Escapes, a documentary on the life and times of filmmaker/actor/dancer/raconteur Hampton Fancher, still best known for his contribution to the screenplay of Blade Runner, as told by the man himself.
And what tales they are. Spinning one after another in avuncular fashion, and rarely trimming out the unsavory or salacious details, Fancher comes off as a refreshing corrective to the overblown, hotshot Hollywood Player one might assume of him. Recounting his days as a rambunctious youth, dropping out of school at 11 in hopes of pursuing a career in dance, to his various romances with high-profile Hollywood ladies — Sue Lyon (Lolita), Teri Garr, and Barbara Hershey — Fancher’s demeanor remains curiously lax, even self-deprecating. There’s an unfeigned openness and honesty projected throughout, as he grants us privy to a few choice episodes of his life; Fancher even exhibits humility and self-doubt, at one point stopping a story cold, proclaiming it to be “too terrible”. Key among these extended asides are his longtime friendship with actor/libertine extraordinaire Brian Kelly (as well as the gent’s myriad conquests), a 24-hour fling with a secretary in Central Pennsylvania which served to prevent an untimely meeting with Death, and, most illuminating, his personal and professional anxieties. “Being frightened of acting means you’re frightened of life”, Fancher contemplates. “Acting is life. If I was lying as an actor, I was lying in my life.”
With a structure more akin to a visual essay — right down to chaptering each segment with inter titles — director Michael Almereyda utilizes what appears to be a single-shot Fancher monologue as a springboard to interrogate the stylistic possibilities offered up by the documentary form. In fact, Escapes feels very much like a continuation of turf Almereyda explored in his previous outing, the equal parts frustrating and inventive Experimenter — an aestheticized biopic on Stanley Milgram which weaves dramatized incident with docu-style interludes, the latter complete with direct address from lead Peter Sarsgaard. Escapes jettisons fictional reenactments, however, in favor of excavating pop-culture’s past by culling footage from the vast array of films and television Fancher lent his chops to amid a 20-year acting stint.
Escapes’ opening half-hour is its most successful stretch. Guided by Fancher’s voiceover — he doesn’t appear onscreen till the 28-minute mark —Almereyda deploys an abundance of abstract clips, devoid of context and citation, to construct a complementary narrative. His collage of disparate elements finds common ground between associative experimentation and traditional story logic, with each image (in some cases, succession of images) working as a visual counterpart to Fancher’s cock-and-bull. This approach is not necessarily innovative: an even more successful recent attempt can be found in the irrepressibly jolly Final Cut: Ladies and Gentleman, wherein director György Pálfi strings together individual shots from over 450 movies to fabricate an histoire d’amour through filmic collage. Final Cut forced the audience to ponder our perceiving of images and the meanings assigned to them, all while putting one’s film history expertise to the ultimate test; Escapes employs this technique more as a trick, albeit one which serves to render Fancher the Character Actor the “star” of his own movie.
Alas, Escapes can’t sustain the energy of its first-third, inevitably peaking before the central subject makes his visible introduction. Yet we’re still left with the animated Fancher and his adventures, most of which veer toward the personal and grow increasingly melancholic. Intimately photographed at home with long-lensed shallow focus singling him out, he sorta maintains the movie with his everyman vibe and pleasing cadence, even as the freshness of Almereyda’s formal device withers. There may not be much to it in the end, but, following last year’s (more successful) De Palma, Fancher’s life story, filled with more pitfalls and escapes than a Hollywood screenplay, represents the latest case for establishing a Filmmaker-as-Monologist trend. Here’s hoping Vittorio Storaro gets his chance.
Escapes opens in Philly theaters today.