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Review: ‘Escapes’ Recounts a Hollywood Storyteller’s Inventive Life


Hampton Fancher in Michael Almereyda’s documentary about his life, “Escapes.”

Grasshopper Film

The writer Hampton Fancher, one of the seers behind the 1982 masterpiece “Blade Runner,” has led the kind of fantastically eventful life that seems the stuff of fiction. Born in East Los Angeles in 1938 to a white American father and Mexican-American mother, he announced to them at 11 that he was leaving school — and did. He ran wild, studied ballet and, after seeing a biopic about the silent-screen legend Rudolph Valentino, renamed himself Mario Montejo. By 15, Mario was en route to Spain to study flamenco. On the ship home, Marlon Brando invited him to dinner. A bashful Mario declined.

Mr. Fancher relates this anecdote about traveling in fast, starry company in “Escapes,” a thoroughly charming, thoroughly engaging portrait of this great adventurer written, directed and produced by Michael Almereyda. I’m not entirely sure that the Brando invitation is true, even if Mr. Almereyda offers photo evidence that appears to partly back up Mr. Fancher. Yet it scarcely matters. What’s important is the story and how Mr. Fancher turns every walk down memory lane into a leisurely, surprise-filled stroll through a labyrinth, taking us right and then left and then down apparent dead ends before guiding us home. Of course, how Mr. Almereyda tells these stories matters too.


Trailer: ‘Escapes’

A preview of the film.

By GRASSHOPPER FILM on Publish Date July 25, 2017.

Image courtesy of Internet Video Archive.

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Mr. Fancher has recently bobbed up again in the entertainment news, a resurfacing largely traceable to the forthcoming release of “Blade Runner 2049,” a long-anticipated sequel that he helped write. The original “Blade Runner,” a cult film directed by Ridley Scott that became a cinematic landmark, long ago cemented Mr. Fancher’s place in movie history, especially for cinephiles. Yet you discover — story by story — there’s more to his biography than one glorious credit. At the same time, part of the pleasure of “Escapes” is how Mr. Almereyda, drawing deeply from the American pop archives (comics, old movies and television), connects the original “Blade Runner” to Mr. Fancher’s life with its movie love, romanticism, beautiful women and mad, circuitous rides.

“Escapes” takes an aptly twisty approach to its subject. The title seems to refer to Mr. Fancher’s talent for leaving one world for another, getaways that Mr. Almereyda has gathered into discrete chapters. The first opens with an offscreen Mr. Fancher discussing the Spanish word “duende” over battered black-and-white images of a man being shot out of a saddle in a western. “Anything that has death in it,” Mr. Fancher says, “and wants to live beyond its limits — that is expressive and crazy — that has duende.” Elsewhere, the poet Federico García Lorca wrote that duende is “not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive: meaning, it’s in the veins: meaning, it’s of the most ancient culture of immediate creation.”


Hampton Fancher in his flamenco phase. By the age of 15, he was en route to Spain to study dance.

Grasshopper Film

Mr. Fancher’s life soon emerges as an argument for living beyond one’s limits and for style as something in the veins, as life. He didn’t just dress up in costumes — as amusing family photos illustrate — he seems to have willed himself over the rainbow again and again. “I lived in a fantasy world,” he says in onscreen text early in the documentary. “I was a spy. I was a hero. I was Humphrey Bogart.” It’s no wonder that Mr. Fancher became an actor and that years later, in transforming Philip K. Dick’s science-fiction novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” into “Blade Runner,” he helped create a futuristic world-weary shamus with sharp Bogart flavor.

Mr. Fancher’s movie love and way of spinning a yarn to its near-breaking point — one detour opens onto another — dovetail nicely with the cinephilia and playfulness that characterize Mr. Almereyda’s movies (“Experimenter”). He folds plenty of tangy bits into “Escapes” — Mr. Fancher palled around with fame and was romantically involved with Sue Lyon and Barbara Hershey — but the movie is more essayistic gloss than definitive biography. It’s a liberating take. Because, as Mr. Almereyda marshals his material, which includes Mr. Fancher digressing at length as well as clips from his early TV and film work, “Escapes” dodges the dreary obligations of the standard documentary profile to become an exploration of life as (if we’re lucky) a long, endlessly inventive tale.

This seems fitting for a man who helped create “Blade Runner,” a film that is, among other things, about the fragments we try to piece together to tell our stories. Early in “Escapes,” Mr. Almereyda inserts some text from an unnamed movie that reads, “Hollywood, the star-strewn land of ‘Make Believe,’ where enchanted people dreamed it would all come true.” Mr. Almereyda makes that quote part of Mr. Fancher’s story and it could easily be read as cynical. Except Mr. Fancher defies that reading. As it turns out, he really was one of those enchanted people who, despite being born in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, managed to push his way into an industry that he also transcended.

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