In 1969, Ralph Arlyck made a short film about a young boy. Arlyck was living in San Francisco, at Haight and Cole, one of the epicenters of '60s psychedelic, drop-out youth culture. The apartment two stories above, rented by a young married couple with several children, served as a crash pad for anyone of the counterculture stripe. Arlyck watched as the door revolved with hippies, trippies, and junkies, and he occasionally played host to Sean, the precocious four-year-old who'd wander down to chat. Eventually, Arlyck filmed an interview with Sean, and the fifteen-minute short gained national attention.
Sean was in many ways an ordinary child, button-nosed and lily-skinned, with adorable formulations about the necessities of life: "You need your bones so you don't squash." He was also very obviously the child of free spirits, barefoot and long-haired, admitting with a whiff of pride, "I smoke grass." (When Arlyck asks him what it's like, Sean replies, "If you have any grass, I'll show you.") Sean also explains how to identify a junkie and complains about the cops. The film won awards, and Arlyck received a congratulatory letter from French filmmaker François Truffaut (which makes perfect sense), but audiences didn't like it. They feared for Sean's health and crowed alarm at the degeneracy of hippie culture.
Twenty-five years later, Arlyck returned to San Francisco to find out what had happened to Sean. Over the ensuing ten years, the now-experienced filmmaker made periodic visits, checking in to see how Sean was doing and how his life was developing. The result is Following Sean, a documentary that, while attempting to engage all kinds of interesting questions about family, personality, and politics, is ultimately unsatisfying. In the end, though Arlyck searches, there's not much drama and no real trajectory to the story. It's just a bunch of people living their lives.
The main problem seems to be Sean. Arlyck delays introducing us to the adult Sean until nearly a half-hour into the film. He may want to set the context or generate suspense, but it seems more likely that he knew he had limited footage to milk. Because while Sean the child was funny and opinionated and open, playing with his feet and challenging his interviewer, Sean the adult is reserved and seemingly pretty simple. Either he's not a reflective person or he's not comfortable sharing himself with the camera; either way, Sean comes across as a likable, ordinary guy who enjoys ordinary-guy pursuits (guns and cars) and wants to create a good life for himself and his family. Other than that, nothing.
Meanwhile, Arlyck introduces another subject: himself. Running parallel to his story of Sean and Sean's family (and taking up more time) is an autobiography, a summary of Arlyck's life and choices since leaving San Francisco for suburban New York, which he did not long after making the first film. Arlyck seems to want to say something about how lives diverge, how two people who were once neighbors can head in such different directions (or do they?). But, as Arlyck admits, his path merely crossed with Sean's for a short time, and the filmmaker was more observer than participant in the San Francisco of the '60s. He came from a middle-class Jewish family on the East Coast, so it's not surprising that he ended up back there, in a New York suburb, raising a family.
Watching Following Sean, it's hard not to think of successful films in the same genre, particularly Michael Apted's Up movies, which have been checking in with a group of English schoolchildren every seven years since 1963. Apted's subjects are captivating, not least because he knows what to ask them, and the films are brimming with news. In the same vein, 2003's beautiful The Same River Twice returned to a group of friends who, twenty years earlier, had rafted for a few weeks on the Colorado River, largely without clothes. In all of these films, we dig deeply into what it means to live a life, to what degree a person has control over his life, and to what degree he is shaped by his parents and circumstances -- race, class, gender, nationality. Following Sean seems most interested in personality -- does the child of hippies become a drug addict or a corporate Republican? -- but it can't find anything to say about it.
Following Sean does have some beautiful footage, both from the '60s and the present, and Arlyck is a companionable narrator. He has insightful things to say about the Haight ("Now it all feels like caricature or commerce") and includes amusing footage of his own children, in which they complain about being filmed and label him an "ex-hippie." But it's not enough.
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