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Movie Review

A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory

A haunting tone poem as elusive as its subject

Danny Williams was a filmmaker in Warhol’s camp. Danny Williams was a filmmaker in Warhol’s camp. (Arthouse Films)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 5, 2011

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Originally released in 2007, “A Walk Into the Sea’’ is a thoroughly haunting little film about a ghost on the floor of Andy Warhol’s Factory. In 1966, Danny Williams, a young movie editor and experimental filmmaker, traveled from Manhattan to his family’s home in Rockport, Mass. One night, after dinner, he went for a walk and didn’t come back. Several weeks later his clothes were found neatly folded on a rock in a cove. His body was never found.

Williams’s niece, Esther B. Robinson, grew up with his ghost. Born in 1969, she found art books on her grandmother’s shelves that fell open at Danny’s name. Yet, when she would ask about him, the family would go silent or change the subject. By the mid-2000s, she was working for an arts foundation in New York and heard that the Museum of Modern Art had a trove of her uncle’s films in its Warhol collection. She fought MOMA for two years before the museum would let her see the footage.

None of that struggle is in “A Walk Into the Sea,’’ and it might have been a stronger movie if it were. What Robinson has created, instead, is an eerily moving tone poem as hard to pin down as its subject. Her movie mixes Williams’s remarkable film work with prickly family reminiscences and hazy recollections from Factory survivors. At the film’s center is a blur that willfully resists coming into focus.

Williams was a Brahmin who got away, arriving in Manhattan in the early 1960s and serving as film editor on two key documentaries by the Maysles brothers. He fell in with the Factory crowd when Warhol decided he needed a filmmaking pro, but by all accounts Danny dived headlong into the amphetamine scene surrounding the artist, into the backbiting scrum for his favor, and into Andy’s bed. He also looks to have been the chief technological wizard behind Warhol’s legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings.

“By all accounts,’’ of course, is a relative term. One of the more startling aspects of “A Walk Into the Sea’’ is seeing the Factory regulars in winter. Brigid Berlin is a cynical shade of her robust, demonic ’60s self, while Warhol mainstays like Billy Name, Gerard Malanga, and Chuck Wein offer anecdotal fragments about Williams that seem filtered through decades of chemistry. Paul Morrissey, the filmmaking rooster in Andy’s henhouse, haughtily seems to wish Williams back into the cracks of anonymity.

Only John Cale, then of the Velvet Underground, recalls the era with any clarity. He also understands, with his wicked Welsh wit, the impossibility of ever truly knowing. “When you’re asking one question’’ about the Factory, he warns Robinson, “you’re really asking five or six.’’

Back in Rockport, the answers aren’t much clearer. The director’s grandmother, Nadia, is a tough old bird who scorned Warhol’s domination of her son but who runs her own family with an iron hand. Interviewed in old age, she’s an eroded piece of Bay State granite who sidesteps Danny’s homosexuality and insists that he just “went for a pleasant swim.’’

“A Walk Into the Sea’’ is deeply unflattering to the Warhol camp and only a little more gentle with the Williams family, for the simple reason that neither group saw Danny for who he was. Nor do we, except through the films rescued from the MOMA archives and shown here for the first time. Silent, silvery documentations of Factory life, they’re light-years away from the better-known footage shot by Warhol and Morrissey, and they include stunning passages of montage that Williams painstakingly edited in-camera. They’re the beginnings of a major body of work that never came to be, and they answer nothing.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. To follow him, go to www.twitter.com/tyburr.

A WALK INTO THE SEA: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory

Directed by: Esther B. Robinson

Written by: Robinson and Shannon Kennedy

Starring: Paul Morrissey, Albert Maysles, John Cale, Danny Fields, Brigid Berlin, Billy Name

At: Museum of Fine Arts (today and various dates through Jan. 14)

Running time: 75 minutes

Unrated

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