Danny Williams, subject of Esther Robinson’s documentary portrait A Walk Into the Sea, was a ’60s casualty. His brief life derives cultural significance from his association with the Silver Age of the Warhol Factory—and a particular poignance in that the survivors of that epoch barely remember him.
A Harvard dropout from an old New England family, Williams was an aspiring filmmaker who apprenticed with the Maysles brothers before drifting into that great high-school-cafeteria-cum-religious- cult known as the Factory—and even into an affair with the pale duke himself. Robinson, who is Williams’s niece, suggests that he was written out of history. Not true: Williams does figure in two Warhol biographies, if not Warhol’s memoirs. Still, interviewed by Robinson, narcissistic cool kids Bridget Polk and Gerard Malanga have long since forgotten her uncle, while other Factory habitués, Billy Name and Paul Morrissey, seem to have regarded him as a threat.
Williams, who had experience as a film editor and soundman, designed and operated the light show for Warhol’s 1965-66 multimedia extravaganza, The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Velvet Underground violinist John Cale recalls an instance of Williams and Morrissey, whose job was to project the movies, scuffling one night for control of the cables. A few months later, Williams disappeared off the beach at Cape Ann. Was he driven mad by methamphetamines? Too many strobes? Factory catfights?
A Walk Into the Sea is given additional ballast with excerpts from Williams’s 16mm movies, discovered by Warhol historian Callie Angell (who points out that Warhol bequeathed Williams his 16mm Bolex). Hyperlit and edited in the camera, these films seem to be mainly studies of Andy. But who was Williams? He has a different look in every blurry photo, and, perhaps out of deference to her family, Robinson has little to say about his background. Or maybe it’s a strategy—that Williams’s personality never comes into focus has the effect of making his 15 minutes of fame all the more sad and ghostly.