No offense to the Sundance Film Festival (really, I love Sundance!), but Minnesota-based indie-lovers needn’t brave the countless elements in Park City this month to find alt-cinema of the stimulating variety. Me, with a plane ticket to Utah in hand and a press pass awaiting, I’m honestly half-tempted to cancel this year’s trip in favor of “ Expanding the Frame,” the Walker’s homegrown, far-flung, month-long survey of big-screen mold-breaking, which kicks off January 12 with Polish artist Piotr Uklanski’s neo-Communist oater Summer Love–not at Sundance, as you may have guessed.
What should I do? The Park City High School venue known as the Eccles Theatre has the U.S. premiere of recent Walker guest Michel Gondry‘s Be Kind Rewind on January 20, and I’ll likely be there (even though Gondry’s movie opens a mere five days later). But when else will I get to see the newly restored and evidently tantalizing shorts of the late Factory worker and Warhol intimate Danny Williams if not at the Walker on, uh, January 20? And unless you were at the 07 Sundance, where marathon woman (and Walker vet) Jennifer Fox’s six-hour Flying first soared, wouldn’t you do just about anything to catch it at “ Expanding the Frame” over a two-day stretch or on one long Sunday?
These merely scratch the surface of “ Frame,” which also offers a triple dose of the Romanian New Wave–including the area premiere of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (January 30), a well-timed antidote to the American “ shmashmortion” genre–along with a four-pack of scarcely seen features by German experimentalist Ulrike Ottinger (February 22-24) and, well, more.
While I wrestle with this excruciating decision, be kind and rewind with me to 1966, a year of burnouts and accidents, when Williams tragically disappeared in Massachusetts after having at least illuminated and quite possibly masterminded the Factory’s landmark Exploding Plastic Inevitable trips with the Velvet Underground. Whatever happened to the young filmmaker and “ Harvard electrician,” and, alas, it remains a mystery even after his niece Esther B. Robinson’s thoroughly detailed documentary investigation A Walk Into the Sea (January 18-20), Williams was clearly another casualty of Factory life.
If Edie Sedgwick has been the poor little poster girl for Factory fallout to the frequent exclusion of Williams and others, even in the four long hours of Ric Burns’s recent PBS study of the scene, Robinson’s film endeavors to expand the frame. And if Warhol has been principally credited with conceiving the mid-60s flood of flamboyantly experimental New York shorts, A Walk Into the Sea–along with Mary Jordan’s similarly intentioned Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis–makes plain that collaboration not only abounded, but that it was rather ruthlessly unacknowledged by Factory bosses eager to share ideas if not intellectual property. We’re encouraged to forgive our great American artists their abundant failures as human beings, but how much? Certainly Warhol wasn’t known by the half-charmed, half-vampiric nickname of Drella for nothing. And the painstaking surreality of Williams’s “ Factory” (excerpted in Robinson’s doc), whose precise rhythms were created not on a flatbed, but in the camera, hardly fails to assert the young artist’s innovations.
Partly through her canny use of otherworldly music, Robinson, a St. Paul native who’ll return to Minnesota for the Walker screenings, helps give her late uncle’s “ Factory” the eerie power of a secret diary. Even with the sound off, it’s no stretch to see Williams’s stroboscopic images of Drella and his soup cans as spooky if not downright threatening. The hypnotically arresting force of these black and white pictures, the near-subliminal sense they give of holding revelations in their grain like seeds in soil, is such that we scan even the scratchy, pen-marked tails of the Williams reels for clues. If I’m haunted enough by these materials to consider staying in Minneapolis until at least the 21st, I can only guess what they must mean to Robinson.