“A Walk Into the Sea,” docu about the brief life and mysterious disappearance of editor-filmmaker Danny Williams, is the latest, absorbing contribution to the growing corpus of pics about neglected but significant figures who passed through Andy Warhol’s Factory. Helming debut by subject’s niece, producer Esther B. Robinson, evenhandedly examines how Williams fell victim to the bitchiness in Warhol’s circle, and ended up written out of both the official histories of the Factory and the Williams’ family. “Walk” should wander through a few fests and limited theatrical runs, especially in Gotham.
Docu’s theatrical prospects could be boosted by hype surrounding the recent biopic of Edie Sedgwick, “Factory Girl,” despite latter’s poor box office perf. (Sedgwick even appears fleetingly in a clip from one of Williams’ movies seen here, although she’s not identified.) Even allowing for the fact that “A Walk Into the Sea” is a sober-sided docu, and “Factory Girl” a sensationalist, semi-fictionalized feature, both depict the Factory’s milieu as a vicious circle, where creativity was indeed fostered but rivalries could turn poisonous, presided over by the fickle Warhol himself. Both films illustrate how Warhol made a habit of elevating favorites (Danny Williams was his lover for a time and even lived with the artist and his mother), and then tossing them aside.
Helmer Robinson lets her interviewees tell the story here, first and foremost her grandmother Nadia Williams who recalls how her son Danny came home to Massachusetts in July, 1966, borrowed her car for a drive to the ocean, and never came back.
Gradually, interviews with former Factory stalwarts and others build up a bigger picture. Legendary documaker Albert Maysles explains how the 21-year-old Williams, freshly down from Harvard, showed real promise as an editor on two of the Maysles brothers’ early films, “Showman” (1963) and “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” (1964).
By 1965 he was Warhol’s lover and was making his own films, including a 16mm, black-and-white short called “Factory,” shown in its entirety here, that uses strobing effects and innovative in-camera editing to capture Warhol, Sedgwick and Factory stalwarts Billy Name, Gerard Malanga, John Cale and several others hanging out in the famous downtown digs.
The other interviewees’ accounts of what happened next contradict each other (as they so often do in Factory histories). Filmmaker Ron Nameth and photographer Nat Finkelstein recollect Williams warmly, praise his work and insist his innovative, complex lighting designs for the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour were crucial to the rock show’s success.
Helmer Paul Morrissey, on the other hand, completely dismisses Williams’ contribution and creative skills, going so far as to say there was barely any lighting at all at EPI shows. Velvet Underground member John Cale takes up a more neutral position and reps one of the pic’s more reliable-seeming witnesses, who remembers Morrissey and Williams fighting over power. Name, Malanga and Bridget Berlin also provide dispassionate-sounding recollections, though Berlin amusingly admits her memory of those drug-fuelled days is a bit hazy in places.
If pic has one major fault, it’s that it errs on the side of discretion and doesn’t dig as deep as it might have done into the family dynamics or the wrangle with MOMA over the rights to Danny’s films (recounted, curiously in the Berlin Forum catalogue entry, but not onscreen), which the museum had archived. Ultimately, Danny remains a shadowy figure, a structuring absence knowable only by the work he left behind (intriguing but hardly masterpieces), a handful of photos, and some memories left behind.