leave a comment --Ken Fox
The undying fascination with Andy Warhol and the habitues of the storied studio/social space known as the Factory continues with Esther Robinson's interesting attempt at a biography of her uncle, the film editor, lighting designer and Warhol's one-time lover Danny Williams. Williams disappeared one night in the summer of 1966 after having dinner with his family, leaving his clothes and his mother's car on a bluff on Massachusetts' Cape Ann. Though his body was never found, it's generally assumed that the 27-year-old Williams, who got his start as an editor with the Maysles brothers, joined such former Factory regulars as Freddie Herko, Edie Sedgwick and Andrea Feldman in committing suicide. Robinson has her work cut out for her: Williams was an assuming figure in a world where ego meant everything, and not many people whom Robinson approached remember her uncle. Some who do are reluctant to risk offering up the painful details of Williams' descent into drugs and homelessness after his fall from Warhol's grace. Others, like the film director Paul Morrissey, who had good reason to be jealous of Williams, offer reminiscences that are suspect to say the least: Morrissey not only denies that Williams ever worked on the Velvet Underground's Exploding Plastic Inevitable, he claims the band never even had a light show, although contemporary reviews and the memories of far more reliable interviewees like the VU's John Cale, Warhol's assistant Gerard Malanga, and long-time Factory sidekick Brigit Berlin say otherwise. And Williams family aren't much help either. It's clear that Williams' salty New England mother, Nadia Williams, never quite came to terms with her son's homosexuality -- she still denies he's even dead -- and a rambling interview with Williams' disheveled brother David suggests there's probably another tale a lot closer to home that's left untold. But in her search for her uncle, Robinson discovered something quite unexpected: He was a startlingly talented filmmaker. In the kind of serendipitous coincidence that could only happen in a city like New York, Robinson wound up working in the same building as the Warhol Foundation of the Arts, and a chance meeting between a visiting Nadia Williams and a Foundation staff member put Robinson in touch with Callie Angell, curator of the Andy Warhol Film Project at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Angell, it turns out, had also been looking for Danny Williams. While tracking a film of the artist Harold Stevenson that was thought to have been shot by Warhol, Angell discovered that the 16mm short was actually one of several films made in and around the Factory by Williams using Warhol's Bolex. The films are astonishing in their beauty -- bright, opalescent light; deep, velvety shadow; dreamlike slow-motion; and stroboscopic, almost biorhythmic editing, done completely in-camera -- that find both a darkness and an undeniable rapture where Warhol saw tatty, empty glamour and cruelty. Key pieces of information are missing from Robinson's film, like the details of Williams' life before he hooked up with Warhol, and one gets the feeling that Robinson was so overwhelmed by the discovery of her uncle's films she let the more straightforwardly biographical aspects of her project fall by the wayside; it's not even clear from the film when, exactly, Williams disappeared. Those details are certainly important, but in light of the quality of her uncle's work, Robinson's excitement is understandable, and her film goes right to the heart of a familiar question regarding the relationship between Warhol and his Factory. Was the bewigged pop artist an artistic enabler who stoked the creativity of those around him? Or was he an artistic vampire who took what he could from his easily exploited pets before discarding them in favor of the latest pop flavor? That question once again remains unanswered, but will no doubt be taken up once again by still another Warhol doc at any moment.