No doubt, when filmmaker Ralph Arlyck decided in the mid-1990s to revisit the subject of the student short he'd made almost three decades earlier in San Francisco, he hoped to find answers to the question that had followed him all those years. What had happened to the impish, barefooted little boy who had alternatively charmed and horrified audiences in 1969? Back then, Arlyck's candid camera and four-year-old Sean Farrell's precocious thoughts on pot smoking, police presence and a freewheeling, unshod life in Haight Ashbury had sent the film Sean on an international round of screenings (including at the White House) and an uproar in the press rarely accorded a student film.
Depending on their reaction to a turbulent and still-notorious era of political and social upheaval, viewers had seen in Sean their best hopes or worst fears. Would Sean grow up to exemplify a "hippie" vision of freedom? Or would he turn out to be a drug addict or stockbroker?
Any of those predictions, of course, would have provided a clear storyline and easy drama. But, as Arlyck is the first to admit in Following Sean, his feature-length sequel, life hardly ever turns out clear and easy. There's always drama, though. And any visit to the past will open up as many questions about hopes and realities, ideals and emotions, freedoms and obligations, youth and old age, as it ever settles — for the filmmaker as well as for the film's subject.
Arlyck met Sean in the late 1960s when the filmmaker was a graduate student at San Francisco State College and living in the city's Haight Ashbury neighborhood. "The Haight" was counterculture central for the Bay Area's extended "Summer of Love," even as the campus was a center of radical student activism that rivaled nearby UC Berkeley. Like others in those days, East Coast-native Arlyck had been drawn to California's excitement and especially to the Bay Area's "history-in-the-making" ferment. But he remained a self-described fringe participant in a seriocomic circus whose free-spirited values left him charmed, ambivalent and confused.
Living one floor below a group of radical med students and two floors below a family led by the charismatic Johnny Farrell — who had left behind a wealthy, conservative '50s background to create, with his wife, Susie, a family circle that embodied "Summer of Love" ideals of freedom and creativity — Arlyck found himself beguiled by talking to the Farrells' four-year old, Sean, who had free run of the building and of the neighborhood. When it came time for Arlyck to make a thesis film, he decided — with admirable documentary instincts — simply to follow Sean on a skateboard along teeming Haight Street and then sit the child down for an impromptu interview.
Sean hit a nerve across the nation and marked the beginning, in ways he only begins to understand in his new film, of Arlyck's own "long, strange trip." His career as a filmmaker had been launched when he filmed Sean. What had become of that little boy? But also, what had become of Arlyck's early aspirations, values, confusions and relationships, as he made his way from a place and time of impractical idealism to a quotidian world of economic pressure and social expectations? When Arlyck, who long ago had abandoned California dreaming for East Coast suburbia, returned to San Francisco, he felt that he was closing a cinematic reality loop — as only documentary film can — possibly for Sean, but most assuredly for himself.
Following Sean inevitably turns into the story of three generations of Sean's family, including Sean and his half-brother; their hardworking if vagabond father; Sean's mother, who turned to a more settled spiritual path; and his grandparents on his mother's side, Archie and Hon Brown. Perhaps because they seem to offer a more grounded idealism than that of his beloved father, Sean is drawn to the grandparents who were important union organizers and Communist Party members in the 1950s. Following Sean includes a striking piece of uncovered archival footage: Archie Brown leading a raucous protest at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in San Francisco and being arrested and forcibly removed by those he loudly labels "goons."
When, in the course of filming, Sean marries a Russian immigrant, Zhanna, Arlyck recalls the start of the Haight-Ashbury's most enduring legacy to his life his relationship to his beautiful French-born wife, Elisabeth Cardonne. As both marriages begin to suffer cross-cultural stresses in the course of Following Sean, Arlyck and his film are drawn into deeper waters of cross-generational truth and consequences.
Call it chance, or historical synchronicity, or the inevitable self-reflexivity of cinema. Following Sean becomes a soulful rumination on an extraordinary passage in the nation's political and cultural history, and, even more, a meditation on the passing of generations and the legacies handed down as a result of individual choices taken in the whirlwinds of historical necessity. A delightful aspect of Following Sean is the filmmaker's unfolding realization that to understand the story of a life is to understand the stories of families, clans, generations and societies in motion. "Most of us are constantly trying to figure out what we can claim for ourselves versus what we owe our families — the ones we live with, the ones that created us and the ones that will continue after us," says Arlyck. "That was what was so wonderful about going back and finding Sean and the people around him, to see how an atypical American family — don't forget we're talking about hippies, commies and other 'fringe elements' — can still represent major currents of what was happening in America then, and still happens today."