Catching up With "Following Sean", Documentary Critique
Now streaming on Netflix, the 2005 Following Sean is a moody documentary about a one-time 4-year-old hippie-San Francisco-commune-reared documentary star "Sean", who notoriously admitted to eating pot and hating police on film, now being followed once again for the sake of a second take, later in life, where are we now documentary.
The documentary filmmaker here is Ralph Arlyck, who came to fame with the 1970 release of the original "Sean", a brilliant student film juxtaposing well-edited interview clips of 4-year-old Sean who was his upstairs neighbor living in a hippie crash pad in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, with trippy black and white broll of the tumultuous and artistic days of the late 1960s in gritty San Francisco.
When Arlyck returns to Sean more than three decades later as a much older filmmaker, he takes on a style extremely reminiscent of Ross McElwee, with lots of narration (too much?), partial self-honesty which he uses as a mirror, and strange clips of his own family, to perhaps justify training his lenses on those outside his family. Arlyck is remarkable in how extremely awkward his subjects appear in the final edit, including his own relatives. Some say art is the distance between artist and subject and Arlyck always keeps an uncomfortable separation going. This effect serves as a perpetual tool of storytelling tension, even when there appears to be no tension in the story he is telling.
The film is a brilliant examination into the effects of parenting, parent child relationships and views of each other, the consequences of the different types of dreams we chase, how communes, ideas of communism, experiments in sharing with others and not working for the Man turned out in the United States, how the San Francisco Bay area evolved in some of its own stereotypes, and Sean. You can tell Arlyck reveals little about himself even though he pretends he does, but that is part of the charm. Beautiful music carries along a melodramatic and graceful trip of a slightly dishonest and narcissistic dissector/director who came to fame with Sean and worked extremely hard on Following Sean. Sean, a genial guy with lots of wisdom and a barely touched upon interesting voyage of his own, is dissected into little pieces, every time the filmmaker visits we get a snapshot, which is hardly the sum of his parts, it's just his fascinating, Arlyckified documentary self revisited.