Following Sean

For me, the question of work — whether I should have a real job with a salary — makes me sit up in bed at three in the morning.

— Ralph Arlyck

It’s almost like everything they tell you is the truth is a lie and everything that’s a lie is the truth.

— Johnny Farrell

In 1966, Ralph Arlyck moved to California. Before that, he had been to Africa with the Peace Corps, attended a year of grad school, and avoided the draft, but when his life in New York City “felt flat,” he needed a change. Over a brief montage — old footage of traffic and recent images of the Golden Gate Bridge — Arlyck describes his decision: “San Francisco looked like the complete opposite, playful and upbeat. Now I’m flying out here, or imagining I am. But in 1966, I drove.”

The differences between imagining and doing, as well as between then and now (“now” being 1999, when Arlyck returned to the West Coast), are complicated throughout Following Sean, premiering in PBS’ POV series 31 July. In this perceptive, provocative documentary, Arlyck rediscovers his own past and ponders his future while seeking out the child, Sean Farrell, who at four years old helped to jumpstart his career as a filmmaker. While a student at San Francisco State, he made a short film called “Sean,” which won student awards, screened at festivals, and played on a double bill at Cannes with François Truffaut’s The Wild Child.

As Arlyck recalls here, the short caused something of a sensation, for Sean was an outspoken, remarkably self-aware four-year-old. Appearing in crisp black-and-white, Sean sits on Arlyck’s couch in his Haight-Ashbury apartment, describing for his neighbor his fondness for grass (he prefers eating it to smoking it) and dislike for both “speed freaks” and cops (shown in footage as they hosed down protestors and dragged them down public stairways). “Do they bust children?” asks Arlyck. “No,” assures Sean, “They’re too little.”

Arlyck’s description of his filmmaking process back in 1969 shows both his artistic ingenuity (he strapped his camera to a skateboard in order to follow the child on the sidewalk) and evolving questions about life in the Haight, clashing generations, family, and work. While the earlier film focused on Sean as something like a product and reflection of his “times,” the 2006 film (for it took Arlyck some seven years to complete it) revisits both Sean (now grown up and a 30-soemthing union electrician, still living in San Francisco), and his parents, Johnny and Susie. As Arlyck recalls them from before, Johnny was an aggressively free spirit, having rejected his “own family of “bankers” in order to pursue a life without property and responsibility. Susie’s own background — her parents were notable communists Archie Brown (who fought in the Spanish Civil War and with HUAC) and renowned organizer Hon Brown — led her, at 15, to trust in and marry Johnny, even to accept his desire for an “open” marriage despite her own preference for commitment and security.

As Arlyck looks back, he sees that the first film’s “Sean turned out to be the perfect foil for a decade seen as infantile,” he and his family coming to represent, for a certain segment of viewers, “exactly what was wrong with America, canaries in the mineshaft. This little boy I was so fond of and his whole family had became a symbol, and it was my fault.” While Arlyck doesn’t dig into artists’ relations to their subjects and consumers, or even their own visions, whether naïve or intentional, the new documentary contextualizes such questions in compelling and unusual ways, especially as he thinks through his work as work, compared to Johnny’s rejection of work, the communists’ investment in work and workers, and the ways that middle and working class individuals are differently conflicted about what it means to make a living.

Remembering his post-“Sean” filmmaking, Arlyck shows scenes from a documentary he made with a crew that included his wife, French-born academic Elisabeth. A “road movie about supermarkets across the country,” it was, he says, “sort of a smartass look at American consumer culture.” In the footage from that film, he wears a suit and puts his microphone in shoppers’ faces, encouraging them to worry out loud about the “high cost of living.” The look is amateurish and the assumptions are simplistic, but, he says, “winging it” back then was “just the sort of stance you wanted.” When he thinks again, in Following Sean, he observes, “I’d filmed men whose jobs made them easy to satirize” (this under shots of commuters on a train), even as they — along with Arlyck and his friends back in Manhattan or the Haight — wondered whether to “put the world or their families or work at center stage.” Following Sean, unlike Arlyck’s earlier films, focuses on the problems with any single answer, using its titular subject as a case in point. “For Sean,” Arlyck narrates, “these choices were not so clear cut.”

After interviews with Johnny, Susie, and one of Sean’s sisters, Arlyck meets with the adult Sean. He is, in a word, unexpected. “There were so many predictions about him growing up to be a cokehead or a stockbroker,” Arlyck says, but Sean is his own creation, an honors graduate from Berkeley’s political science program, pre-law, who hasn’t yet decided to take the LSATs. His work as an electrician means he has a regular income, with which he supports his own expatriate wife, Zhanna and, by the end of the film, a young son as well. Their schedules are crowded, what with both parents taking classes. Nothing the “daily grind,” Arlyck asks, “So you’re ants and not grasshoppers?” He wonders at Sean’s 180 turn away from Johnny’s ethos, and again, much like he was as a four-year-old, Sean is self-aware and generous. Johnny thinks his son “is a worrier,” and Sean accepts his father (who left Susie when Sean was five, married Rachel, and eventually left her and Sean’s half-siblings as well): “I just have an overall feeling,” he says, driving his pickup truck to work. “And actually, it’s not a bad feeling. I like him just fine.”

Arlyck uses this father-son relationship to reflect on his own. “My father had taught himself carpentry,” he says, then he and Arlyck’s mother fond themselves in political work, as New York lefties. “They had that funny mix of radical politics and puritan behavior,” he recalls, so they were less than impressed with the “circus” he inhabited in San Francisco. “It was little alarming” for them, he admits, also knowing that this was part of the reason he embraced it.

While Following Sean explores the usual tensions between generations, its interest is both broader and more detailed. As fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and brothers and sisters come in and out of focus (late in the film, Arlyck says in some weird sort of passing that one of Sean’s sisters has opted out of the film altogether, and Arlyck’s sister, who had cerebral palsy and died in 1990, “may be the main reason I make films”), the film contemplates the hopes and disappointments, ideals and decisions that shape lives. While families certainly shape experience and expectations, the film suggests, they are in turn shaped by historical, political, and social contexts.

Imagine, says Arlyck, the surprise and conflict of the 1960s, when a “whole chunk of the American left [was] taking this nutty turn. All of a sudden, people in face paint are telling union organizers that work is just a bourgeois scam.” Seemingly ever malleable as a value and a burden, work in the U.S. remains a source of anxiety, identity, and community. Astutely and engagingly, Following Sean makes clear how work becomes life stories.

RATING 8 / 10