Watch the trailer (at followingsean.com).
The most vivid image that arises from Following Sean, Ralph Arlyck's documentary covering a thirty-year stretch of American counter-cultural history, is the filmmaker's description of tourist busses traveling the streets of San Francisco's Haight/Ashbury district in the late-1960s. They crawl through the crowded neighborhood, taking middle Americans on a guided tour of the hippie "freak show" that had engulfed that part of the city. In response, many of those "freaks" march alongside the tour busses holding up mirrors.
Watching Following Sean feels like looking into the filmmaker's own hand-mirror as he stares pensively at himself. The hybrid documentary/memoir follows two threads. Sean, a "flower child" who the filmmaker first encountered in 1969, when his family lived at Haight and Cole, became the four-year-old subject of a short documentary that Arlyck made while he was a film student at San Francisco State University, during that department's heyday. The film became a worldwide sensation and jump-started Arlyck's documentary career. Thirty years later, the filmmaker returned to San Francisco (during the dot com boom) and began filming Sean a second time. The bookends of these interviews with Sean elicit an unexpected response in the filmmaker, causing him to reflect on his own progress during that same period.
What's brave about this examination is that the two family's stories don't reflect well on the filmmaker. Where Sean's family is made up of activists (his maternal grandparents were radical union organizers and his parents are genuine hippies, their lives devoted to the pursuit of personal freedom and spiritual development), Arlyck's seems to be made up of observers, folks who support the cause but don't get caught up in it. Arlyck underlines these differences, cross-cutting between footage of Sean's grandfather as he is dragged in protest from a HUAC hearing and his own father's admission that he attended communist camp just to pick up girls. There is a luxury to being an observer, to being present but remaining separate and Arlyck seems to be questioning this position.
This reminded me of a passage from the classic documentary Berkeley in the Sixties, which spent its first half chronicling the work of a number of mavericks in the Free Speech movement, who lived lives based on their convictions and acted forcefully for change. That action caused a counter-culture to arise and that counter-culture was broadcast to the rest of the world, attracting many to the Bay Area to join in. But those people were attracted to an image of a counter-culture and based their lives not on the underlying set of principles that started it, but on the image alone. Is this the great disconnect between the baby boomers' view of what they stood for and what has actually come to pass during their preeminence?
I guess this is where I come in. Sean is about my age. I grew up in California during the same period. I wanted the film Following Sean to actually FOLLOW Sean, not to use his life as another opportunity for a baby boomer to reflect on his own. It seems my generation, falling right behind the boomers, has always been observed with little understanding (and an equally small amount of curiosity) by the behemoth that is just a few steps ahead. Sean's life gets less examination in this film than those of his parents, grandparents, and especially the filmmaker's. Boomers look at "Generation X" with mystification, which becomes painfully clear when Sean's father observes that Sean "works all the time" and is "not near as free as he was [in childhood]." Well, folks, the days of renting an apartment on Haight and Cole for $50 a month are long over.
There is no examination of how Sean's father's decision to relinquish his stake in a home that Sean helped build, on property that was bought cheap in the 1970s and is now worth half a million dollars, contrasts with Sean's current reality of a dot com boom-era housing market. (I had to fill that in for myself.) Though we see Sean struggle to survive in San Francisco in 1999, no time is spent on the reasons why, on how radically the challenges of buying a home and raising a family (or just living a life) in the city had changed since 1969. Instead, the filmmaker shows his own mother playing an expensive Steinway piano that he will inherit and talks about what he would like to do with the money he'll make from its sale. Is that the difference between generations? One that would inherit the largest amount of money ever passed from generation to generation and the other that will see the rise in use of the reverse mortgage?
Sean himself is a wry, funny, generous and kind character. He has developed, in direct opposition to his father, into a responsible and pragmatic man who can still feel compassion for his dad, though Johnny has shirked responsibility at every turn.
The mark of a truly excellent documentary is the number of questions left swirling in the air after the screen goes dark. Following Sean opened up issue after issue, by turns funny, exasperating, infuriating and poetic. There is a wonderful line in the film that describes the divide between the liberal left of the late sixties and the activist left that came before it. "Suddenly, people in face paint are telling former union organizers that work is a bourgeois scam." It highlights the radical swing of a pendulum on the left from street fighting for workers' rights to identity politics and the exploration of personal freedom. (Now, that's progress!) Sean's view is somewhere in the middle. It's not that dramatic, maybe that's why it gets short shrift in the narrative of the film. But it does provide the final piece of his family's generational "argument" -- thesis, antithesis and, finally, synthesis.