Appellate Judge Dan Mancini was going to write a jokey blurb about Sean Penn and the paparazzi, but that would've been so 80s.
The more things change, the more we're not the same.
In 1969, Ralph Arlyck was a graduate student at San Francisco State College film school. He spent five months of that year working on a short film project called Sean. An interview with the four-year-old son of his hippie neighbors in the Haight-Ashbury district, it begins with young Sean talking about stuff four-year-olds talk about: days of the week, parts of the body, playing outside, and how adults are creepy. Then the conversation turns to "turning on," speed freaks, drug dealers, God, animistic Native American religion, Snuffy the German Shepherd shitting on the floor, and how cops are pigs. The interview footage is intercut with scenes of San Francisco life in the late '60s—hippies galavanting in parks and toking up on street corners, menacing cops on horseback. The short is a fascinating little case study in how very young children soak up everything the adults around them say and do, how they're far more aware of the world around them than we give them credit for.
On its initial release, the short was acclaimed among critics, academics, and other cultural elites. It played at a number of film festivals, a special screening at the White House, and alongside François Truffaut's L'Enfant Sauvage in France. When the broader movie-going public got a gander, controversy erupted. Sean and his family became symbols of the self-indulgent excesses of the flower power generation. It was a consequence Arlyck never intended. But the film was done, life moved on, and Arlyck lost contact with Sean and his family.
In Following Sean—the Arlyck's feature-length follow-up—the director catches up with his subject a quarter of a century after shooting the original short. Thankfully, the movie is as much an autobiographical confession as an update to the previous piece. It details not only what became of Sean in the intervening years and the sort of man he's become, but offers a look at Arlyck's life through the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into this century. Through it all, we're given an intimate glimpse of the legacy and fallout of the turbulent 60s and its freewheeling counterculture.
The movie owes its intelligent even-handedness to Arlyck's own internal conflict over the hippies' singular focus on personal freedom. Arlyck is the son of old school leftist radicals, yet even while living in Haight-Ashbury he was skeptical of the hippies naïve resistance to responsibility and adulthood, of the "required values" espoused by political activists like Abbie Hoffman, and of the hate of groups like the Weathermen. All of it was an affront to the work ethic of his parents, who championed the laborer to the point of flirting with Communism. He describes himself as more of an observer of the San Francisco scene than a participant. Despite living in the symbolic heart of the flower power carnival, Arlyck admits that his favorite bumper sticker at the time read, "Hate cops? Next time you're in trouble trying calling a hippie."
Chief among the hippies that Arlyck observed were Johnny and Susie Farrell, whose apartment was a constant parade of freaks and free-spirits. The couple had three children, one of whom was 4-year-old Sean, bright-eyed and precocious. What happens, Arlyck wondered at the time, when stunted adults insistent on resisting the work and familial responsibilities of adulthood begin having children themselves? Sean was a straight-forward, non-editorializing exploration of that theme. In a turn of events that would be clichéd if Sean and Following Sean were narrative films instead of documentaries, the Farrells provide one possible answer to Arlyck's question by disbanding as a family before Sean is even finished.
Following Sean picks up its predecessor's themes, but expresses them on a larger canvas and in a studied way that isn't as raw but is more beautiful, lyrical, and artful. The film amplifies Arlyck's themes by presenting the parallel lives of Sean, his parents, and Arlyck himself—the hard choices each makes regarding the balance between freedom and responsibility, work and family, tradition and personal yen. In one scene Arlyck shows us photographs of the movie's subjects as children: himself, Sean, Johnny and Susie, Susie's radical Communist mother, and Arlyck's long-deceased sister who suffered from cerebral palsy. He notes that each of them, at the time the photographs were taken, thought they'd remain children for all time, that they'd "play forever." In truth, each was already in the midst of life, ever changing, ever evolving. Each faced unavoidable choices whose consequences were personal, familial, and cultural. The scene might be hopelessly sentimental and nostalgic except that Following Sean presents its subjects just as Sean presented its subject: with loads of sharp detail and not an ounce of editorial.
Docurama presents Following Sean on DVD in a transfer that does justice to Arlyck's handsome photography. From gorgeous arial shots of the San Francisco Bay, to simple man-on-the-street medium shots, color and detail are excellent. Audio is a perfectly serviceable stereo mix that presents dialogue and music with excellent clarity.
The most important supplement on the disc is Sean. The 14-minute short film is presented almost in its entirety here and there throughout the main feature, but it's great to able to watch it as a stand-alone piece. Most likely shot on black-and-white 16mm stock, Sean is presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. Grain varies greatly from shot to shot depending on the lighting. Even the grainiest shots are stylish and beautiful. Audio is a straight-up two-channel presentation of the original mono track, which is nothing more than the interview itself. There is no music or other effects.
Fourteen minutes of scenes deleted from Following Sean, as well as a trailer for the film are the other video supplements on the disc.
An audio interview of Arlyck, conducted in 2006 by Euan Kerr for Minnesota Public Radio is also archived. I can't comment on its quality because it wouldn't play for me. The time display on my DVD player ticked away as though the interview were playing, but my speakers remained silent. I have no idea whether this problem is isolated to my disc (which is a full release version, not a screener), or more widespread.
Text-based features include a statement about Sean and Following Sean by Arlick, plus a biography for the director.
You've probably noticed by now that I've said very little about the sort of man Sean Farrell became. If you want to know, you'll have to watch Arlyck's documentary for yourself. Its patient and delicate revelation of the adult Sean is the central source of its poetic beauty, not at all reductive, simplistic, or predictable. Arlyck notes that when the original documentary short was released in 1969, both its champions and detractors predicted one of two paths for the young boy. That Arlyck doesn't try to wedge the adult Sean's life into either of these binary options but presents a man more complex, fascinating, and downright likable is concrete proof of his quality as a filmmaker.
Arlyck, his movie, and his subject are all found not guilty. Do yourself a favor and spend 87 minutes with all three.
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Scales of Justice
• Sean, Original 1969 Documentary Short
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