Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Michael Almereyda probes Hampton Fancher (and Hollywood) in new doc bio-pic, ESCAPES

If TrustMovies had to pick a single quality that describes what filmmaker Michael Almereyda consistently achieves more than any other in his films, I would call it empathy for the subject at hand. Almereyda's style is often so strange (and equally wonderful, however) -- have you seen his Happy Here and Now? -- that the empathy comes across as something other than the more usual 'sympathy' that pushes us to shed a tear for our poor protagonist. Yet that empathy stands tall amidst other conflicting feelings: surprise, wonder, confusion, even occasional queasiness.

In his second-latest film, ESCAPES (another new one, Marjorie Prime, opens soon), Almereyda, shown at left, takes a good, long, loving look at a fellow possessing the very classy name of Hampton Fancher that many of us have heard of yet probably know little about. The filmmaker begins by showing us, as we hear Fancher's gravelly-yet-mellifluous voice (which narrates the entire documentary), our young man (shown below) as the typically hot-looking-yet-impoverished Hollywood actor, struggling to make ends meet, even as he refuses to be taken care of by his current and more successful actress girlfriend. That girlfriend is owed some money by her ex-boyfriend, and Fancher is keen on her getting the debt paid back. That story turns out to be just one of many succulent tales that Fancher regales us with over the course of this consistently interesting, surprising and enriching 89-minute movie -- which bounces along merrily, due to both Fancher's abilities as a raconteur and Almereyda's very interesting use of accompanying visuals.

What the filmmaker has cleverly done here is to splice together one after another of Mr. Fancher's many appearances on screen and TV (50 of them are seen here by my count) to form a kind of constant backdrop for the actor/writer's storytelling. Other actors -- from Troy Donahue (below, left) to Raymond Burr -- appear with Fancher in scenes from his various films and television series.

The key to why these scenes were specifically chosen appears to be their mood and the intention of the characters on screen, reflecting whatever situation Fancher is currently describing. They're clearly not that situation, but the manner in which they reflect it is by turns amusing, surprising, graphic and/or silly. It's all great fun, in addition to being an original and appropriate way to couple visuals to verbal storytelling.

Among the many anecdotes, the best may be Fancher's tale of arriving in Harrisburg, PA, for a special screening of an earlier (and evidently pretty awful) movie he'd made, and then coupling for a day (and a night) with the plain-Jane secretary of the person in charge of his appearance there. This is a humdinger and then some, and it just keeps getting better as it goes along. Divided into chapters with interesting heading, the movie spends one of these giving us a fascinating take on Fancher's own early history, growing up (at right) at as part of a half-Hispanic family in Southern California and then ending up, for a time, as an evidently pretty good Flamenco dancer (below), before setting his sites on a career as an actor, and then a writer, in Hollywood.

His career as the former did not take off, past a slew of minor and then supporting roles, and he admits in the course of the film that he never really wanted to act and was, in fact, a lazy actor, who never bothered doing his homework regarding character. It was as a writer (as well as executive producer of but a single film) that he is likely to be best remembered. That film was Blade Runner, which, as an actor, Fancher had tried to option from its author Philip K. Dick early on, and was finally able to do with the help of his good friend and (by then paralyzed) actor Brian Kelly, who had starred in the popular TV series, Flipper. The section devoted to Kelly sheds a good deal of new light on Fancher, the friendship between the two men, their careers and competitiveness, and Fancher's psychological profile.

The man's relationship with several women important in his life comes to the fore, as well, especially that of his connection to and love for actress Barbara Hershey. Of course, it is via Fancher himself that we are hearing all this, but I have to admit that the guy seems like a relatively reliable witness and somebody I might have been happy to know and be lucky enough to call my friend. (That's the more-or-less current Mr. Fancher -- still a good-looking guy, even as he approaches his 80th year -- shown above and below.

From Grasshopper Film, Escapes opens tomorrow, Wednesday, July 26, in New York City at the IFC Center, and from there moves to another 14 cities around the country over the weeks to come. It will play Washington DC at the Landmark E Street Cinema beginning August 4, and in Los Angeles at the Landmark NuArt, starting August 11. To see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters, simply click here then scroll down to the bottom of your screen and click on Where to Watch.

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