Essays: Joseph O’Neill on “Escapes”

The idea of the “biopic” induces an immediate sense of confinement. No matter how charismatic or consequential its subject, there seems little prospect of escaping the walls (psychological, sociological, temporal) that enclose, and potentially explain to death, a nonfictional life. Michael Almereyda’s Escapes engages with this problem and transcends it. The title refers not only to the film’s protagonist — the writer, actor, director, flamenco dancer, and runaway Hampton Fancher — but also to Almereyda’s formal decision to exit the prison of documentary objectivity. Subjectivity — the “deranged private world inhabited by one person,” as Philip K. Dick puts it — is the deepest preoccupation of his film.

When Almereyda approached him about this project, Fancher was publicly renowned for his visionary screenplay for Blade Runner, which (with an assist from David Peoples) he adapted from Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? He was also Almereyda’s friend and privately visible to him. Almereyda understood Fancher to be a rare creature: a specimen of that sympathetic, existentially heroic category of human whose colorful voyage through life has avoided, whether willfully or helplessly, the trajectories associated with the bourgeois adventure. As the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben puts it:

“Each of us has known such creatures… They embody the type of eternal student or swindler who ages badly and who must be left behind in the end, even if it is against our wishes. And yet something about them, an inconclusive gesture, an unforeseen grace, a certain mathematical boldness in judgment or taste, a certain air of nimbleness in their limbs or words — all these features indicate that they belong to a complementary world and allude to a lost citizenship or inviolable elsewhere.”

Almereyda persuaded Fancher (a man by his own admission given to stubborn and self-defeating refusal) to collaborate with him. This required Fancher to relate his adventures on camera and, crucially, to monopolize the narration. With the exception of a few seconds from Ridley Scott and some terrifically powerful audio of Philip K. Dick, there are no supplementary or competing points of view. Even Fanchers’s famous old flames, Terri Garr and Sue Lyon and Barbara Hershey, are not heard from directly — although they do make short, charismatic appearances in clips taken from their respective filmographies. A lesser filmmaker than Almereyda would have found a way to include their testimonies, if only to amplify the star factor. But this movie resists that temptation, just as it resists the temptation to objectively adjudicate upon the details of a particular life, as if such a thing were possible. Instead, it investigates the universal necessity of constructing a story of one’s life; how that search for meaning begins early and never ends; and how it is inseparable from dreaming.

The brilliant touch, here, is the film’s visual dimension. Almereyda gathered together footage from the many movies and TV shows in which Fancher had appeared (TV westerns, especially) and edited fragments of this material to accompany Fancher’s voiceover. The ridiculous gunslinger; the impetuous cowpoke; the buddy; the playboy; the assassin; the golfer; the stick-up guy; the fop; the cop; the cad; the lover; the boyfriend; the bullfighter: these and other fictive Fancherian personae are fleetingly resurrected as surreal pictorial counterpoints to the vocal narrative. It isn’t until fifteen minutes into the film that we glimpse our narrator in the flesh; and not until half an hour has passed that he becomes an enduring physical presence.

The obvious connection, here, is to the serial daydreams of Walter Mitty. Unlike James Thurber’s (or Danny Kaye’s) mundane hero, however, the young Fancher passionately sought to verify his imagined reality. He quit school at the age of eleven; assumed the name of Mario Montejo; ran away to Spain to master the flamenco; and thereafter continued on his picaresque, essentially archaic quest for… what?

Duende is the answer offered by Escapes — passionate inspiration, or soul, not unrelated to the idea of dignity. Duende is a vocation, not an achieved state of affairs. In Fancher’s case, it refers to an idiosyncratic, powerfully masculine ethos that mixes dignity, glory, and ethics. It produces a life of strong friendships, fistfights, seductions, alienations, shenanigans, setbacks, risk-taking (artistic and romantic), strokes of folly and strokes of genius. Why is this so involving? Perhaps because inside each of us is a proud, reckless, bridge-burning spirit who must be suppressed at all costs.

“Thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I,” Rousseau (inaccurately) claimed in his Confessions. Escapes makes no such claim. To begin with, Fancher is very aware of the hazards of autobiography — a genre that’s almost by definition a self-serving narrative. The peculiar authority and intelligence of his voice stems, to an important degree, from its tacit asterisks of regret and its notes of self-questioning; and also from the fact that his tales ultimately concern the virtues of persons other than himself.

Then there’s the fact that Almereyda intentionally omits expectable information — or, to put it another way, rejects the illusion of completeness. There are gaps in the Hampton Fancher story — gaps of time, and gaps in the action. Fatherhood is not really touched on. Gory breakup details are skipped. There’s even a passage when Fancher embarks with relish on an anecdote — set in Vienna, at a glamorous party, and co-starring his great pal Brian Kelly and a mysterious seductress — and then abruptly abandons it: “Actually, this story is so terrible I’m not going to tell it.”

The largest unmentioned fact that hovers over the film — until the last few seconds — is the most providential one: that, in a final, or near-final hurrah, Hampton Fancher would write the triumphant Blade Runner 2049. But that is another story, and almost beside the point.


Joseph O’Neill has written four novels, including Netherland, winner of the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction. Good Trouble, a book of short stories, appears in June 2018.

This essay is included with our DVD release of Escapes, available here.