A Walk into the Sea

Posted on : by : jjmurphy

In 1966, Danny Williams, one of Andy Warhol’s former lovers and a significant force behind the psychedelic light shows of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, disappeared while visiting his family in New England. Following his early success as an editor for the Maysles brothers, Williams, a Harvard graduate, gravitated to the Factory in hopes of jump-starting his film career. Esther B. Robinson’s poignant exploration into the short life of her deceased uncle, A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory (2007), now available on DVD, explores the mystery of what happened by utilizing 20 rolls of 16 mm footage shot by Williams and uncovered by Warhol film curator and archivist, Callie Angell, and by interspersing filmed interviews with various family members and Factory regulars.

As might be expected given the circumstances, A Walk into the Sea ends up providing an unflattering glimpse into life at the notorious silver-colored Factory – an artistic scene where internecine struggles and heavy drug use left many victims. Paul Morrissey blames Williams’s death on the Zeitgeist by viewing him as “a casualty of the era.” Danny’s mother, Nadia Williams, insists, “He didn’t OD. He went for a pleasant swim.” The most intriguing answer to the riddle Robinson poses in her Rashomon-like investigation, however, turns out to be provided by the famed Velvet Underground musician John Cale who suggests: “When you’re asking people to come up with a story on why this happened, you’re asking them to come up with a version of how they would like to do it themselves. So as long as you know when you’re asking one question, you’re asking five or six other ones. Then that gives you a ‘clear’ on how to read the answer.”

One of the issues the film inadvertently raises has to do with authorship – what creative role Danny Williams actually played in Warhol’s films. Morrissey and Billy Name (another Warhol boyfriend who doesn’t hide his jealousy towards Danny) both downplay the contribution of Williams. Other observers, such as photographer Nat Finkelstein and Ronald Nemeth (whose film Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable is part of the ambitious exhibition, “Andy Warhol: Other Voices, Other Rooms,” currently at the Wexner Center in Columbus) provide counter perspectives. Chuck Wein, who introduced Williams to Warhol, strongly identifies with Danny’s subsequent erasure, while Callie Angell provides the most sober perspective, mainly because she has no vested interest at stake other than her own sense of film scholarship.

Even at the recent symposium on Warhol’s work at the Wexner Center, the issue of authorship caused lively debate. Richard Meyer, professor of art history at USC, questioned why Thomas Crow and art historians still find it necessary to attribute authorship solely to Warhol given the inherently collaborative nature of his artistic practice. The answer is bound up with the whole notion of “branding.” In his recent book on the economics of the art world, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: the Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, Don Thompson discusses how branding works within the art world by citing the careers of artists such as Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, and Warhol.

Damien Hirst’s art works, including his spot paintings, for instance, are all done by assistants. As Thompson explains, someone named Rachel does the best job of painting the spots. In fact, Hirst insists that if you’re a collector you really want to own one of the paintings executed by her because she’s so much better at painting spots than everyone else, including him. Does that make Rachel the true author of Hirst’s spot paintings? Not really. Hirst comments, “I like the idea of a factory to produce work, which separates the work from the ideas, but I wouldn’t like a factory to produce the ideas.” Warhol wasn’t so fussy. He took ideas wherever he could get them, including those that came from other people. Yet, as one of the panelists at the Wexner symposium pointed out, Warhol nevertheless controlled which ideas he ultimately chose to brand as his own.

There are differences between the timeworn tradition of artists having assistants and what went on at Warhol’s Factory. For one thing, art assistants are generally paid for their work, so it’s considered “work for hire.” Because Warhol wasn’t making any money from his films initially, no one was paid for their services, and roles were never clearly defined. Another important difference was that Warhol’s Factory was as much a social scene as a space where art was created, thus confusing the divide between the two. Nameth and Finkelstein make a strong case for the significance of Danny Williams in creating the light shows for the expanded cinema phase of Warhol’s filmmaking. Nadia Williams suggests that Danny was starting to get credit for his work on the light shows in reviews, causing resentment on Warhol’s part. In response, Paul Morrissey glowers at the camera and snarls: “It’s not true.” Nadia Williams complains, “Why should he [Warhol] get mad that someone else in his crew got some credit. You never got any credit. All the credit went to one guy.”

Morrissey’s interviews in A Walk into the Sea minimize not only the contributions of Williams, but those of Warhol as well. In discussing the EPI, for instance, Morrissey claims: “There was no use for lights in the show. There were projectors showing movies. And you can’t have lights on top of movies, you wash the movies out.” When Robinson probes Danny’s use of colored lights, Morrissey responds, “There were no colored lights. There was a spotlight with gels. And you turned the gels, and you have a pink, a green, or a blue.” He dismisses Nameth as any sort of credible authority, while Nameth, in turn, marvels at the complexity of Williams’s diagrams. John Cale remembers a fistfight over cables between Danny Williams and Paul Morrissey in the balcony at a club called Poor Richard’s in Chicago. In terms of credit, Gerard Malanga indicates that Danny “basically fell through the woodwork here.” Morrissey once again finds it necessary to diminish Williams’s contribution. He replies: “I was telling Andy what to do for eight or nine years, and I’m barely in any book. They don’t want to know. They think Andy did this and Andy did that. And then Andy wanted to do this. . . and it’s all a myth, so you can’t expect anything else. I’m not sure whether [when] Danny was there, he had any actual influence on things that happened while he was there. Because, while he was there, it was from, you know, My Hustler until the Velvet Underground and all that stuff, I was running the whole thing.”

Like Jean Stein and George Plimpton’s well-known biography Edie, A Walk into the Sea manages to demonize Warhol as a calculating, Machiavellian figure, largely as a result of certain interviews included in the film. In his autobiography POPism, Warhol defends himself against such claims that he was “evil” by insisting that he was actually powerless when it came to making people do his bidding. He writes: “When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can’t make them change if they don’t want to, just like when they do want to, you can’t stop them.” Danny Williams’s acknowledged drug use serves as a case in point.

As a documentary portrait, A Walk into the Sea provides few concrete biographical details of Danny Williams. In his biography on Warhol, Victor Bockris describes the personal relationship between Williams and Warhol as extremely volatile. He recounts an incident in a restaurant on Christopher Street where Williams, in an angry outburst, ripped off Andy’s silver wig. Warhol eventually threw Williams out of his townhouse. Contrary to Billy Name’s wishes – the details of which are recounted in the film – Williams moved into the Factory. Bockris writes: “The handsome Harvard preppie turned into an addict, his hair matted and stringy, his skin coated with the silver dust that crumbled from the walls of the Factory, his glasses broken and taped together. When he fell into one of his funks, sometimes threatening suicide, Andy screamed at him to ‘shape up.’ Everyone joined in.” Bockris’s description of the news of Danny’s disappearance and Warhol’s refusal to speak with his mother gets brought up again in the film by Danny’s sister, Julia Robinson, who wonders, “What were they afraid of? Why weren’t they willing to talk?” Morrissey answers, “I’m sure, you know, he [Warhol] was saddened by it, but, at the same time, he didn’t let anything affect him.”

A lucky coincidence leads Esther Robinson to Callie Angell, who had been trying to locate the family of Danny Williams for seven years. As a result, Robinson is able to show us examples of Danny’s own films. His black and white films represent interesting experiments with high-contrast images, strobing, in-camera rhythmic editing, abstract passages involving light patterns, and a buoyant sense of filmic play, which Nameth wants to claim as proof of Williams’s influence on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Morrissey undercuts this by saying: “I never was told that Danny was a filmmaker. I thought he . . . had a camera and he was taking shots. But he had never put together a film and shown it to anyone. So I was the only one who had ever made films, who . . . arrived at the studio, if you want to call it that.” Strangely, neither Gerard Malanga nor Billy remember Danny Williams with a camera, despite appearing in footage that he shot. Callie Angell talks about Warhol empowering others artistically. She discusses the fact that he gave his 35 mm Pentax still camera to Billy and his 16 mm Bolex movie camera to Danny, which she interprets as confirmation of Warhol’s high regard for both Williams and his talent.

Billy Name describes the Darwinian nature of life inside the Factory, where strong personalities were only too willing to push out those who were weaker. John Cale indicates: “It was based on insecurity. It was like everyone was like afraid of being left out, so they created a part for themselves.” Callie Angell suggests that Warhol tried to engage those around him in his projects, thereby creating a false sense that they were responsible for the ideas. Chuck Wein, for instance, insists that My Hustler (1965) was totally his movie: “I wrote it, directed it, the whole thing.” Ironically, his remark runs directly counter to Morrissey’s earlier claims of authorship regarding the same movie.

In terms of interpersonal dynamics, Nadia Williams believes that Warhol was playing favorites and that Danny had fallen out of favor. She claims, “He was being dominated. . . And who wants to be dominated? I think domination is evil.” Danny Fields suggests that everyone was in love with Andy. Even Brigid Berlin, Warhol’s close confidant for many years, provides a critical perspective on Andy’s perverted sense of intimacy. Nat Finkelstein adds, “There was a cultish kind of setup that was going on over there.” Danny’s mother critiques photos of her son, bristling at ones that makes him look “effeminate” or “too soft.” She doesn’t think he seemed despondent on the night he disappeared, and wonders, “Why would he throw it away? He had everything to live for.”

In answer to speculation that Danny committed suicide, Gerard Malanga claims he never knew for sure. He suggests that it’s a kind of “connect-the-dots” approach, “where you’ve got a car, it’s at the edge of a cliff, near the water.” Because there’s no real evidence, the various interviewees project their own psychic needs onto Danny, and indirectly onto Warhol. Danny’s sister questions whether his disappearance was an attempt to start his life afresh. She still wonders whether Danny might have had a rendezvous with someone that night, or possibly was murdered, noting, “But it is very strange that the body was never found.” Al Maysles conjectures that maybe Danny just walked out to sea, as was befitting his poetic sensibility.

A Walk into the Sea ends with the mystery of its subject still very much intact. Esther Robinson seems acutely aware of how the film operates. She told Ed Halter of the Village Voice: “In order to justify their roles, a lot of the Factory people have to remember themselves as central and everyone else as peripheral. So you get these very singular sensibilities, all of which contradict one another. I was more interested in what people say happened – the narratives people tell themselves so they can go on living after something traumatic. That’s true of my family, and I would say that’s true of people in Warhol’s circle.”