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Esther Robinson and memories of the Factory

Posted at 4:50 PM on January 16, 2008 by Euan Kerr (1 Comments)

Many of the people in Esther Robinson's documentary "A Walk into the Sea:Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory" are delightfully nasty. They are former acolytes of Andy Warhol, and Robinson asks them pointed questions about what life was like when they were at the Factory, a 1960's artistic epicenter. It's clear that some of them are still pretty angry.

Robinson understands why.

"Imagine your twenties," she says. "You are never more beautiful, you are never more productive, and you go to New York City to make art. And you are part of one of the most amazing and electrifying moments in American art history. And imagine that every single thing you do is ascribed to Andy Warhol."

Robinson's film which examines her uncle Danny Williams life at the Factory began as a result of a series of co-incidences. She had a job at a foundation which was in the same building as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts. When she brought her grandmother in to give her a tour they bumped into one of the Foundation staff, and started chatting. Robinson says her grandmother then dropped the bombshell that not only had her son Danny had worked at the Factory, he had also been Warhol's lover, and had actually lived with Warhol and his mother for a while.

The name Danny Williams caught the ear of another passing Warhol Foundation staff member who drew Robinson aside and told her urgently that she needed to contact film researcher Callie Angell. She called a few days later, and when she identified herself Angell told her she had been trying to find her family for seven years.

While researching the Warhol collection at the Museum of Modern Art Angell had come across a collection of 20 experimental films. They were black and white 16mm and all were marked with Danny Williams name. Not only were the films very different from the films made by Warhol himself, they showed an extraordinary creativity.

It was an introduction for Robinson to her uncle, who disappeared after arguing with other people at the Factory and deciding to leave. He appears to have gone for a swim in the sea near his mothers house, and never came back. He may have committed suicide. He may have had an accident. He may have just gone elsewhere. His body was never been found.

Robinson uses the films and the interviews to explore her uncle's creative life. She also uses it to explore the idea memory and it's fallibility.

"One of the people said it early on - it's not in the movie - but they said to me, 'The problem is when you disappear, you hand your life narrative to someone else,' Robinson says. "You are not there to tell it. And the Factory is a very particular environment where telling your story is crucial, both then and now."

Robinson's film is very human in the way it glides from discovery to discovery rather than following a hard narrative line. Williams is represented by his starkly beautiful films, which both capture some of the characters at the Factory, but also show his ability to create strobe-like effects simply through his use of the camera.

Robinson will present the film this weekend as part of the Walker's "Expanding the Frame" series. There will also be a presentation of three of William's films with live musical accompaniment provided by the Quavers. One of them which is the earliest film shot of the Velvet Underground has only been screened in public twice before.

We'll air the Esther Robinson interview tomorrow on All Things Considered

Comments (1)

The view of Andy Warhol, depicted as a one-diemnsional, egotistical and abusive person to those around him is overly simplistic and not very faithful to history. All those spoiled rich kids from New England's social register set in the Factory, who sought attention and celebracy but whom were ultimately self-destructive chose their own course in life.

For someone to come along and blame Andy Warhol for the foolishness of their excessive 20-year-old lifestyle is sophomoric. Are we still in high school?

Because this film is so blind to the wider story of the times, of New York in the 60s, the art world & pop culture, and even the biographical trajectories of its characters it fails. It's subjectivity is seductive, however, there is no context and certain people are not fleshed out to the fullest in order to serve an emotional accusation by the filmmaker who has a family stake in the matter.

I am not a defender of Andy Warhol but someone needs to be a defender of the history of those times and provide an accurate representation of the events. From what I saw at the Walker and heard from the voice of the maker, she did not want to tell the whole story, only the one she wanted put out there about her Uncle. That's too bad for the film and for her prospects of a wider audience appreciating her work and the story it depicts.

Posted by Richard Prince | January 22, 2008 8:23 AM

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