Why do so many documentary filmmakers decide to make films about relatives or people they know? The obvious answer is the ease of getting information. But that does not explain why they choose the subjects they choose. Andrew Neel’s portrait of his grandmother, Alice Neel, at least has the benefit of being a profile of a great artist. Lucia Small’s portrait of her architect father, Glen Howard Small, called My Father, The Genius, at least shows off the insights of an underrated designer. And even Bill Rose’s The Loss Of Nameless Things at least profiles an artist of potential whose life and career were cut short by an accident. None of this is true for the 2006 documentary, A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams And The Warhol Factory, which clocks in at 77 minutes in length.
Director Esther Robinson’s film is a portrait of her uncle, Danny Williams, a gay lover of the iniquitous Andy Warhol, during the 1960s, whose life seems to have ended with his 1967 disappearance (at age 27) after being rejected by Warhol, and demanding payment for his work. Yet, despite the film’s praise of the man as a filmmaker of talent, the few pieces of film that we see that he shot (he mostly chronicled Warhol’s sponsored band, The Velvet Underground) are mostly pedestrian strobe effects that were passé even in the film schools of the era- although, to be fair, were more substantive and intriguing than the crap that Stan Brakhage polluted the cinema world with. And, few people are willing to state the obvious, that a) the subject of the film (despite his disappearance) was not noteworthy nor talented, and b) the film is basically a vanity project for Robinson, as it fails to ask even the most basic questions of its subject’s life and death — Williams’ drug use, as example, is given the barest of mentions.
The bulk of the film is a talking heads sort of documentary, and most of the Warhol Factory gang (from countless other films and projects) is on hand to gossip and, let’s be honest, bask in yet another round of scrutiny into their vapid and hedonistic pasts. Yes, Andy Warhol was an asshole and a poseur, but (dare I say it?) he had actual artistic talent and almost made posing a minor art form. None of his hangers-on had either quality, and Williams was no different. Perhaps the two most revealing moments of A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams And The Warhol Factory are, in the opening credits, the playing of a phone message left on Robinson’s answering machine where someone actually says they have no idea who Williams was and apologize for not being able to help, and, about a third of the way into the film, where Factory staple, Paul Morrisey (another talentless filmmaker), actually states that Williams was just another hanger-on. Yes, it’s clear, from his tone and the filmmaker’s follow up, that envy and jealousy are part of his dismissal of Williams. So? What he says is true, unlike the pabulum churned out by the other Factory hacks: Brigid Berlin, John Cale, Gerard Malanga, Callie Angell and Billy Name. Even documentarian Albert Maysles gets caught up in the near obligatory fellatio of the disappeared Williams.
But, again, why? The film uncovers no murder plot, and reveals only that Warhol and his cohorts were unsympathetic bastards in real life, despite their public personae. Now, how many other films have reached this ‘startling’ conclusion? And, as for the purported subject of the film, Danny Williams? Well, he’s as much of a cipher at the end of the film as he was at the beginning. Yes, his mother Nadia talks about her son, some 40 years dead, with startling clarity, the sort that is rare for a parent to have for their child. Usually, one heard gushing sentiments, but Nadia speaks openly of her son’s drug use and homosexuality and . . . well, that’s about it. The truth is, for all her clarity on what he was, externally, after the fact, she really knew very little about her son. To her, as to us, he is a cipher. The only difference is that she obviously cares for the memory of her son. We, the audience, are not inclined to that emotion since the film never opens him up. Director Robinson had an opportunity to make a film of more substance about the Factory scene, yet — either out of the needed hard work to do so, or a lack of basic curiosity, chose to just lob a softball at us, where a Nolan Ryan level fastball (high and inside) would have been the better pitch selection.
In short, the film is circular and solipsistic, even though its center is a dead man. It is as intriguing as strobe effects, after two or more minutes, and really should have been a thing kept for the archive of Warholia, not the masses. In real life, no one knows what happened to Danny Williams, as his body was never found (the film’s title is based on one of the theories of his death). In A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams And The Warhol Factory, no one ever knows what is what about Danny Williams: Man, mind, art, life, nor soul. As such, the film can only fairly be deemed a failure. My only questions are to what degree did Robinson’s relation to Williams contribute to that failure (a fear to unleash information?), and lacking such a relation, would there have even been a point for her making the film? While the latter question’s answer is rather easy to pin down, I suspect the former one will remain as missing as the sum of Williams.