In order to understand the kind of life that Hampton Fancher has led, consider this: He once spent a month living in sin with a schizophrenic lingerie model, and it barely merits a passing mention in the breezy documentary that “Experimenter” director Michael Almereyda has made about him. Fancher is just one of those guys — you know the kind. The word is usually “raconteur,” but that doesn’t quite seem to cover it, here. In fact, there isn’t a word in the English language that does.
Born in 1938 and an undefinable survivor ever since, Fancher choreographed striptease routines for his sister when he was 10, he snuck about a ship to Spain when he was 15, where he became a flamenco dancer before sailing back to the States with Marlon Brando and Salvador Dali. He started working as a two-bit television actor, though he really only liked the job for the access it gave him to a constellation of beautiful starlets; he married Sue Lyons shortly after she shot “Lolita,” and he turned her into a Lolita of his own. He dodged death, became friends with the guy from “Flipper,” and seduced Barbara Hershey away from David Carradine. And then, as if by accident, he wrote the first draft of a movie that eventually came to be called “Blade Runner.”
In truth, Fancher’s life was only a little remarkable — just a little more remarkable than the average person’s life might seem if seen from a distance and told with a certain poet-warrior gusto — but he lived it with duende. “Anything that has death in it and wants to live beyond its limits — that is expressive and crazy — that has duende,” Fancher explains at the very start of this film, caressing each utterance of the word as though it were the most valuable souvenir he brought back from his teenage adventures in Europe.
Almereyda’s documentary is possessed with duende as well, eschewing the staid approach of so many biographical portraits in favor of something more free-form and feral. Yes, the film includes all the usual data (childhood photos, title cards full of facts about the subject’s birthplace, etc.), but it keeps such basic information in its pocket for a while — in fact, Fancher’s name isn’t even mentioned for a good stretch of time, and nearly 30 minutes pass before we see any footage from the interviews that Almereyda conducted with him.
“Escapes” prefers to approach its star in a roundabout fashion, immediately launching into one of Fancher’s slippery and rambling monologues about his wandering days as a charmed lothario. Backdropped by a busy montage of clips from his acting gigs, Fancher’s voice leads us through an endless story about his relationship with Teri Garr; he talks about how uncomfortable it made him that she was making a small fortune while he was digging ditches, and he wraps the whole thing around the night he paid a visit to Garr’s ex-boyfriend. This, Almereyda insists, is the real Hampton Fancher. He’s a whirlwind, and Wikipedia could never do him justice.
When “Escapes” eventually doubles back to give Fancher a more proper introduction, Almereyda whips through the details of his subject’s life, hurling tersely worded title cards on the screen like leaves snagged on a branch during a windstorm. Scored by the stomping feet of a flamenco dancer, even this obligatory section bristles with masculine energy. Fancher may not be the world’s greatest actor — it hardly seems like he really wanted to be an actor at all — but he’s a man, dammit, and more of a man at 79 than most of us have ever been.
Fortunately for us, Fancher is far too sweet and self-effacing to be mistaken for a watered-down Hemingway wannabe. He’s not that proud — more relevantly, he’s also not that succinct. His anecdotes bubble into stories, and his stories bloat into epics. Almereyda, who goes back a long ways with Fancher and seems to have conceived this project as a tribute to an old friend, can’t help but take a backseat. When Fancher talks, Almereyda listens (and illustrates), and that leads to some extremely meandering remembrances; lose the plot for a moment, and you’re stuck playing catchup for 10 or 15 minutes.
Both men are born storytellers, and they share a mutual understanding about how each of Fancher’s recollections might contribute to our overall impression of him, but it can require a tremendous amount of patience to understand what we’re listening to and why. His sober reflections about “Flipper”star Brian Kelly are gripping, and his woozy strolls down memory lane are all the more enjoyable when he’s walking hand-in-hand with Barbara Hershey, but a sloppily knotted yarn about a one-night stand is too vaguely shaded to be enjoyable, even if it ends with a grim twist that clarifies how Fancher is one of those magic teflon people who always manages to be standing on just the right side of disaster. Perhaps that death-defying lucky streak is what gives “Escapes” its title, or maybe it’s just that Fancher has spent his entire life trying to slip away from himself.
The movies aren’t always full of people like Hampton Fancher, but the movie business is absolutely teeming with them. He’s part Forrest Gump and part Midnight Cowboy, and the fact that he’ll likely be remembered for his sideways involvement in “Blade Runner” is a fitting testament to the apparent randomness of his life. Reinvention is a fool’s errand, this featherlight gem of a film seems to suggest, because life invents each of us anew every day. Case in point: October 6th will see the release of a new film scripted by Hampton Fancher, his first produced work since 1999: “Blade Runner 2049.”
“Escapes” is now playing in theaters.
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