Grains of Time "A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory" By Dana Linssen

in 57th Berlinale

by Dana Linssen

It all starts with the sea. The sea of time. The sea of light. The sea of endless memories. The pulsating sea of back and forth, of loss and lost again. And that is where it all ended, the life of Danny Williams — editor, filmmaker (of some 20 recently re-discovered, yet to be made available Andy Warhol Factory Films), light designer (for the 1966 Velvet Underground / Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour), lover, son, the nameless guy in the pictures next to Andy Warhol. Perhaps his life ended in the sea. Perhaps he just evaporated in the black-white-black-white flicker light of an illustrious era: The saddening swinging sixties of the Warhol Factory.

His niece Esther Robinson drags his life from the both bleached and erased tideline of oblivion in the achingly beautiful A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory that had its world premiere at the 37. “International Forum of New Cinema” at this year’s Berlinale. Her film leaves us with the strangely comforting certainty that all that is left of life, time and history are grains of film.

Esther B. Robinson described the genesis of A Walk into the Sea as a tale of coincidences, serendipities and poetic justice. But like all great works of art, the film itself is an account of the way life itself synchronizes chance and fate. A Walk into the Sea not only unravels some tiny threads of Danny Williams’s life, and of the many lives that were interwoven and tied with his for a while — and if there is a place for name dropping, it must be now: Brigid Berlin, Billy Name, Paul Morrissey, John Cale, they all appear in the film — but the film’s greatest merit is that it unties a bit the Gordian knot of time itself. (Not without engineering some more knots itself, of course, but that is one of the joys of playing with time).

Why does one person get famous while another is forgotten? Who are the people that live in the shadow of the official history? Are their lives less true because they did not make it to the books? These are questions that become tragically cynical when the one person in the photographs from the past is Andy Warhol and the other one is Mr. No Name. Andy Warhol. Pop Art Icon. Prophet of the 15 Minutes of Fame. Next to Andy Warhol everything became art and everyone a superstar. Even though it was only for 15 minutes. Everyone. Except Danny Williams.

Danny Williams is not just an anybody next to a S.O.M.E.B.O.D.Y. Not just a kid next to his favourite football player. He used to be of some importance to Andy Warhol… as far as anyone could have been of some importance to Andy Warhol.

The strength of A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory is that it is not so much a documentary about yet another neglected habitué of the Warhol Factory, nor a vain attempt to rehabilitate a disfavoured family member. It is not just a film that nostalgically takes note that time passes and that the past has this illusionary soothing quality. First-time director Esther B. Robinson (Minneapolis, 1967) invites the spectator on a more fundamental journey along the principles of forgetting and forgetfulness, a passage across the waters of the Lethe, a pilgrimage into a memory machine that demonstrates the merciless way of reminiscences. And thus it is an ode to cinema itself, because oftentimes film is the only vehicle we have to travel back into the past.

Or is it back? Is the time that is revealed in A Walk into the Sea a time past? The shock of recognition is perhaps that this film is excavating the present out of the snippets and fragments and shreds and scraps with which we gratefully contaminate our sight. Of course, the history of the 21-year-old Harvard student who dropped out of university to pursue a film career in Manhattan could have been anybody’s history. But it perfectly illustrates the cruelty of history that one only wants to see hís history, because he might have been someone. Because he was next to someone. Because he witnessed history. Because he was there in the strobe light when it all happened. Because the same history dictates that those were the exciting times. That we should have been there to experience it ourselves. Because nothing really happened ever since. Or so we think. Since we are entangled in this post-Warholian fame-game ourselves.

Danny Williams moved to Manhattan, worked as an assistant editor on two films for the Maysles brothers (Showman, 1963 and What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA, 1964), got mixed up in the Factory, fell in love with Andy Warhol, lived with him and his mother for a while, fell out of grace, came back to Massachusetts in 1966, borrowed his mother’s car for a drive to the ocean, and disappeared. That is the way people’s lives are told in one paragraph. That is the way facts are arranged in a police report. That is the way we will never get to know someone.

We get to know them as we do Danny Williams — in the time between moments, in the finger fillip split-second before a face comes into focus, in the dance of a camera that seeks and searches, paints and stains, uncovers as it discovers, creates as it finds. We get to know them in the groundswell of sounds, in the music of wind squalls, in the countertones of undertones and in the way the sounds scour against the images. We get to know them when we are roaming around the residues, carefully rearranging them arbitrarily, just waiting for the wind to lift up an image and give us a chance to get a glimpse of the underside.

There, at the backside of Danny Williams’s portrait, Esther B. Robinson reveals the weathered contours of our own loved ones. She subverts the line between public and private in a far more intrusive way than any 15 minutes of fame could give us a chance to shamelessly look about someone’s life. She makes them unfamous again. She rebels against the dogma of publicity by showing that there is more to be seen than catches the eye. She proves that the only true way to start seeing is to start in the dark. That the only way of knowing is to feel the mystery.