Have you ever wondered what happened to those innocent urchins running barefoot through San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in the ’60s? Though it gives us a concrete then-and-now example, Following Sean is neither a scathing indictment of the ’60s nor a romantic look back. Anything but simplistic, the film is a 30-year exploration and the culmination of a life’s work by documentarian Ralph Arlyck, Following Sean’s director, cameraman, narrator and secondary subject.
Over the course of the documentary, the audience is given ringside seats to three generations growing up, growing old, dying, getting married and divorced and giving birth. The film starts in 1968 with candid footage of a precocious, articulate, endearing 4-year-old named Sean who lives upstairs from Arlyck on San Francisco’s storied Haight Street. Largely unsupervised by his freewheeling parents, Sean frequently drops by for visits with the twentysomething Arlyck. Their frank conversations about pot, family life, violence and crime in the street become a 15-minute documentary that soon garners acclaim and attention for the young filmmaker.
Thirty years later, having moved to the East Coast many lives ago, Arlyck returns to Haight-Ashbury to meet the adult Sean. How did Sean’s hippie upbringing affect his adult choices? Is he--as most people predicted--either a drug addict or a stockbroker? The camera follows Sean as he embarks on career choices, marriage and ultimately fatherhood. The fascination of this film is the interweaving of cultural diversity as well as its multigenerational look at life in the latter half of the 20th century. Into this complex tapestry of lives the filmmaker weaves his own life’s choices. Both Sean and Arlyck marry women from other countries, women who become integrated into their American lives. In documenting Sean’s choices, Arlyck begins to wonder about his own decisions regarding family, career and place.
The filmmaker’s grandparents are old-school New York Jewish socialists who lived through the fear of McCarthyism and believe in the evils of capitalism. His parents are moderate leftists with a lingering Utopian vision, but even they could not understand the circus-like atmosphere running rampant in the streets of Vietnam-era San Francisco, the expansive sense of irrepressible freedom coupled with a drug-fueled insanity. They support their son’s artistic endeavors, even if they don’t quite see the point of them.
Sean’s father, on the other hand, gave up a middle-class Republican lifestyle to become a vagabond prince in the counterculture and maintained a deep personal sense of freedom without attachment or guilt throughout his life.
There is amazing archival footage of naked hippie men and women languorously soaking in a hot springs, a quintessential ’60s experience, as well as shots of the street life in Haight-Ashbury. We get trippy “Be-Ins” in the park as well as exhilarating clashes with baton-wielding police officers. This is contrasted with scenes of life there today, a bizarre commercial time warp version of the same events. The archival footage is cut with what appears to be amateur homemade film clips of family events, the kind that make you realize you’d better take out that video camera and start memorializing your own family.
The film could have benefited from tighter editing. There are redundancies and the discursive narrative is unpredictable, such as a left-field reference to a bus driver who asks his passengers to help choose the route. In spite of this, the film is never boring, mainly because we are interested in the people. Not only are we curious about Sean and his family, we come to empathize with them and are fascinated by their choices.
The highly literate voice-over narration of the filmmaker guides us through the complex tapestry of lives and operates much like a social anthropologist asking difficult questions: How does the lens of culture define marriage, family and community? Interestingly, he’s not just asking it about his subjects, he’s asking it about himself. In the end, Arlyck’s film is a seriously joyful exploration of our lives and the choices we make in them. Well worth seeing.
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