After dropping out of Harvard in 1965, Danny Williams moved to Manhattan, where he worked as a film editor for the Maysles, and became involved with Andy Warhol’s Factory. As well as being on Warhol’s lover for a while, and working on lighting designs for the Velvet Underground shows, Williams made a number of 16mm films, shooting people and events at the factory, often the same events as featured in Warhol’s own films. In 1966, visiting his family in Massachusetts, Williams went out for a walk and was never seen again.
His films were found thirty years later by Callie Angel, archivist of the Warhol film collection. By coincidence, Warhol’s niece, the film maker and producer Esther B.Robinson, shared an office with the Warhol foundation. A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory chronicles this re-discovery of his films, seeking to explore his life and film-making through interviews of those who knew him at the Factory juxtaposed with interviews of Williams’ – and Robinson’s – own family. The result is a powerful juxtaposing of two groups and families, and of their complex and unknowable relationships to an individual who was part of them.
Making a film about such a subject is a powerful way to explore the cultural presence of Williams, The Factory, and family dynamics. It also produces a number of points relevant to documentary film making more broadly:
1.The absent and present subject. So the film is about Danny Williams, but Williams’ himself is an illusive presence within it. There is a power to a film whose central figure – whose purpose for being – is such a provocational absence. This creates a shifting presence like Peter Gidal observes of Warhol’s Blow-Job:
An antaogonism in Blow Job is, for example, your being looked at by the subject and being avoided by the subject and, through time, a transfer taking place, so that you the viewer are the subject and he in Blow Job is no longer such but re-becomes the object. This extends to the point where the language in the perceiver's (your) head cannot decipher the line where subject and object are delimited. Such a process is to be defined here not as ambiguous but as a process of the antagonisms between the material and the metaphysical...
2. The forgotten and unknown. There are lots of cheap laughs to be got from A Walk Into The Sea about ageing interviewees being unable to remember what happened at The Factory. But think of this instead as a structuring principle - a film punctuated by amnesia, like the white space between and around words.
3. The shock of time. A film dynamised by a juxtaposition of two time periods forty years apart. There’s the shock of ageing, the shock of survival, that shows how each individual's story is itself challenged by its own body in a process of ageing and that time is working against all the conventions of legibility in the filmic image. Allowed an active part in this way, time refuses the film resolution. When time collapses – as when Brigid Berlin phones a friend to ask if Warhol and Williams’ are a couple – it seems funny and slightly obscene.
4. Struggle and contestation needs a space of rest. Amidst absence and amnesia, there is a battle for control, for the right to tell the story and have one’s account seen as authoritative. An absent subject denies its speakers authority; unsettles rather than confirms even as they are speaking. Their knowledge is always tested against death and losing.
Given this struggle, contestation and acrimony it becomes important to find within the film a space of rest that is without such psychological tension. In A Walk into the Sea that is obtained through the film maker Ron Nameth, who views and discusses Williams’ films with an impassioned criticality – commenting particularly on Williams filmic imagination, editing in camera, building up and layering of complex sequences of images.
5. The evidence of objects. Counter these misrepresentations by focussing on objects. Two examples:
(a) Ron Nameth holds up an exercise book with a rough, biro drawing that he explains, animating its scrawl with his careful attention, is Williams’ drawings of his light designs for the Velvet Underground.
(b) Williams’ mother looks at photographs of him. In one she says he looks too fat and like he could be pushed around; in another strong and confident. She prefers the second.
Objects take on the qualities of those who hold them and remember nothing if asked.
6.Structure as distorted mirror. The study of Williams’ family alongside a study of The Factory. His grandmother looked at in the refraction of cinema becoming Warhol. Perhaps this distorted mirroring can be pursued over the course of the film down to the level of the individual face.
Actually, what is disturbing about the factory as family is the sense that its cultural presence was so strong that none of the participants have been able to break its familial bond. Of all the interviewees, only John Cale conveys a sense of having established a sense of distance; a way for time to continue. Or maybe he has just found a way for the voice and face to hide, to pretend change. The documentary itself emerges as a form for the setting up, preserving, and breaking of such bonds.
This is also why several interviewees are wearing sunglasses. I feel everyone in the audience at BFI Southbank hates Paul Morrissey. Distorted mirroring is how the way film expresses the notion of family, making of montage a kinship structure.
7.Everyone is connected and alone. A film is about a shared experience of an absent person. A person whose existence is how they appeared within certain groups, told through stories of people who never talk to each other, except in memory. The only linkages are the interviewers voice, subtly conveying contradictory information between interviews, and the momentum of the film itself.
8.Everyone is a documentary maker. The cultural weight of an experience that will never be adequately represented. The reluctant attempt to become one’s own documentary maker, always adopting a traditional, conservative notion of the form; asking the film to reinforce a belief not allow X to emerge from the accumulation of evidence. In an interview included on the BFI's programme notes Esther Robinson observes:
I think it is always challenging when you film your own family. I had a rule, and it was a rule for everyone in my film. I wanted everyone in the film to be recognised like I loved them, and one of the painful things that happened to my family over time was reading the Warhol books and watching films and trying to understand Danny through them. It was a really painful process, because they did not recognise the person and, in fact, most of the people from the Factory, when they are represented in the films, are not represented as themselves. They are in service to an idea.
9.Power of the unseen recorder. Every documentary should have a second person – real or imaginary – secretly filming the same things. This creates the possibility of an alternative version, that is always more shocking in reality than as an idea.
Even when this second film-maker is working more openly, his or her images will still maintain this quality of subterfuge and identity through non-presence. Hence Williams’ astonishing portrait of Warhol, backlit like changing patterns of sunlight on the outline of the moon; an eerie, x-ray quality of the image that shows the eyes, shifting and blinking uneasily behind their black sunglasses. In secrecy, holding its subjects, not in slow motion but in a rapt space of their own concentration.
10.Disturbing power of poetic happiness. Williams' Factory films are often noticeable for the happiness of those they film. But in silence, black and white, slowed down, happiness acquires a disturbing, dream-like quality. Similarly, one resolution of the unknowability at the films core, is the poetic image. Albert Maysles suggests the poeticism of the walk into the sea as an appropriate one for understanding Williams' energy, his probably tragic engagement with The Factory.
It’s important that the film opens itself to this poetic level. It establishes a presence for the motivation that led Williams to make such crafted, beautiful films. But, as Albert Maysles himself suggests, to evoke such poetry is to reveal its inadequacy in the face of Williams’ gifts and the possibility of what he might have achieved. Without this dialectic and this awareness, the documentary becomes nostalgic and barbaric.