Flower child grows up

Sean Farrell

By Brooks Robards - June 14, 2007

When filmmaker Ralph Arlyck made his first film about Sean Farrell in 1969, his subject was a precocious four-year-old living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district with his hippie parents. "Following Sean," playing Sunday at the Katharine Cornell Theatre in honor of Father's Day, picks up the story 30 years later. Mr. Arlyck, who last visited the Island 20 years ago as part of the Rear Window film series, will attend the Martha's Vineyard Film Society's screening and answer questions afterwards.

In those long-gone flower-child days, Mr. Arlyck was a graduate student making a 15-minute short film about a child who lived upstairs in his building and occasionally came down to visit. The little boy with long hair who faced down his camera with such aplomb already seemed worlds ahead of his generation, talking about how he smoked pot and what his reaction was to the crash pad where his parents welcomed a host of hippies, drug-takers, and other social radicals.

Winning prizes at film festivals around the world, Mr. Arlyck's student film had a major impact and even earned a screening at the White House during a conference on child welfare. Mr. Arlyck moved to New York soon after, but in the ensuing years people kept asking him what had happened to Sean. So he decided to find out.

In 1994, Mr. Arlyck returned to the West Coast, and a grown-up Sean once again became the subject of his camera, this time over a period of 10 years. What emerges in the full-length documentary Mr. Arlyck created is a portrait not just of the aftermath for one person of growing up during a euphorically idealistic era in America. It also examines some profound changes in the dynamics of American family life.

Mr. Arlyck focuses his camera lens on a number of Sean's extended family members. Sean's father, Johnny, for instance, came from a wealthy, conservative background. On the other hand, his mother, Suzie, grew up in a working-class family. The couple married when she was just 14, and the union ultimately did not last. Johnny eventually settled in northern California, going "back to the land."

Suzie's parents, Archie and Hon Brown, had important roles in the San Francisco Communist Party. Archie, who died in the early 1990s of asbestos cancer, worked as a longshoreman's union organizer, while Hon played an important role in raising Sean. Mr. Arlyck also interviews Sean's sister Debbie, who ends up following in her mother's footsteps and marrying at a young age.

By spending as much time as he does with Sean and his extended family, Mr. Arlyck lets the viewer see how the Farrells interact, go their separate ways, find new partners, move on with their lives and yet stay connected in some ways.

During the course of the filming, a grown-up Sean meets Zhanna, a Russian émigré, and eventually they marry and have a little boy, Alex. By the end of the film Alex is the same age as Sean was in the original film.

The director also interweaves elements of his own family's lives, as a counterpoint to Sean and his family. Like the senior Farrells, Mr. Arlyck's parents belonged to the Communist Party, although they were what he describes as "fair-weather" communists, attending secret meetings but never staying with the cause.

Mr. Arlyck introduces his French-born wife Elisabeth Cardonne-Arlyck, whom he met while he was a student in San Francisco, and their sons, Kevin and Matthew. Now a college professor, Cardonne-Arlyck spends part of her time in France.

Mr. Arlyck sees a strong connection between the stories of the two families, one based on the West Coast, the other on the East Coast. His personalization of the central issues about changing family structure, success and individual fulfillment, however, diffuses the focus, which makes the film less compelling for the viewer. Still, it is a satisfying and interesting cinematic experience.

The filmmaker has written, "Most of us are constantly trying to figure out what we can claim for ourselves versus what we owe our families -- the ones we live with, the ones that created us, and the ones that will continue after us." Certainly "Following Sean" sheds light memorably on that process.

"Following Sean," Sunday, June 17, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Spring Street, Vineyard Haven. Sponsored by the Martha's Vineyard Film Society. Q&A session follows with filmmaker Ralph Arlyck. Tickets: $6 or $4 for members. For more information, call 508-696-9369.

Brooks Robards is a contributing writer to The Times.