Scheduled for home video release this week, “Following Sean” is an uncommonly sensitive documentary on the counter-culture of the 1960s and its lingering impact on a couple of families. Although radicals might have an understandable aversion to anything smacking of “hippy” culture, the film maintains a skeptical attitude toward its subject matter. Additionally, the families in question include Communist veterans whose participation helps to throw the “rebelliousness” of the flower children into sharp relief.
In 1969 director Ralph Arlyck was living in Haight-Ashbury in the same building as Johnny Farrell, his wife Susie and their three young children who had moved to San Francisco with the intention of “wearing flowers in their hair” as the song put it. Farrell was a bit older than the average hippy and had left behind a middle-class life in suburbia. He came from a wealthy, Republican-voting household and had decided to put that behind him.
His wife also had an unusual background, but coming from the opposite direction of Farrell’s. Her father was Archie Brown, a Communist leader of the longshoreman’s union who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and had memorable confrontations with HUAC. He died of a lung cancer in the early 1990s caused by exposure to asbestos on the docks. His wife Esther “Hon” Brown was also a Communist Party leader who built a house with the proceeds of a suit brought against Archie’s bosses. In the backyard, there’s a hot tub that is dedicated to Archie. A plaque reads, “Nothing is too good for the working class.” Hon Brown, who is just one of an amazingly attractive group of people in this film, is interviewed throughout.
Arlyck began to hang out with the Farrells, who like many people in this period and in this neighborhood in particular, maintained an open door policy to all comers. Their apartment was what was called a “crash pad” at the time. This was also around the time that the 29 year old Arlyck was launching a career as a documentary film-maker. His first work was a 20 minute short that featured Johnny Farrell’s 4 year old son Sean talking about how much he enjoyed smoking pot, hated the cops and liked to go barefoot (shoes were sweaty.) The film won first prize at a student film festival that year and won the acclaim of Francois Truffaut.
In 1999 Arlyck decided to visit San Francisco and to discover what happened to the Farrells and especially to Sean who was now 35 years old. Considering the rather extreme situation that the 4 year old had been born and raised into, you anticipate that the adult Sean Farrell would be a catatonic wreck if he were still alive. As it turns out, he was exceedingly normal with a job as an electrician and a blue-collar life-style. He enjoyed weekends at his stepbrother’s home north of San Francisco using pistols or bow-and-arrow on an outdoor range. When you first meet him, you wonder if the film will go slack since Sean seems so ordinary.
As Arlyck begins to interview Sean in greater and greater depth, you realize that he is not the typical “Joe Six-Pack”. After graduating college with honors and being accepted at law school, he decided to become an ordinary worker. In some ways, he is a throwback to the earlier generation of Archie Brown that ended up in blue collar work because nothing else was available. The more we learn about Sean, the more we understand that his choice was shaped by unease with mainstream American values. Although he has not “dropped out,” he was neither ready to take up the life-style that his father had abandoned in the 1960s. He is stuck somewhere in the middle and his sense of detachment and his ability to reflect philosophically on his social and existential status make him just as compelling an interviewee as he was in 1969.
From 1999 to 2006, Arlyck takes periodic trips out to San Francisco to interview Sean Farrell, whose uneasy evolution will remind you of Michael Apted’s series of documentaries “28 Up”, et al. tracking the hopes and frustrations of a group of British men and women from year to year. I find Arlyck’s work much more interesting, however, since it has much more psychological depth. Apted tends to prefer to allow his interviewees to ramble on, often to no perceptible end, while Arlyck is much more like a novelist, using the interviews as a way to explore character and to comment on society.
The film is just as much about Arlyck himself who reviews his own evolution as he left San Francisco and the 60s behind him. Like Susie Farrell, his parents are Communist veterans themselves although much more of the rank-and-file. They are interviewed throughout the film to great advantage, showing both a certain bemusement about their own youthful rebelliousness and those of their son’s.
The autobiographical aspects of this film will remind you very much of the work of Ross McElwee, another film documentary maker who keeps returning to his own life and those of his family members. In watching their work, we are reminded that there is nothing more interesting than the lives of ordinary people trying to make sense of the puzzle of American society.