When Ralph Arlyck decided to go back to San Francisco to revisit the subject of his celebrated student film, 30 years prior, he had no idea how much Sean's life would reflect his own.
The original film had been debated and digested as a predictive document, both for Sean and for the culture in general-unsettling if you felt offended by Haight Ashbury lifestyles and reassuring if you thought 50s cultural stagnation was about to be swept aside.
"I suppose I had this bird's eye view of the birthing of a New American Culture," remembered Arlyck of his Haight days. "My neighbors-radical medical students on the second floor, above them Sean's family in a wild crashpad with a constant stream of people coming and going on the third-were the equivalent of revolutionary vanguards. And the midst of it all was this precocious kid, Sean."
Arlyck filmed Sean while riding behind him on a skateboard through the neighborhood streets and then sat him down on a couch in his living room for a 15-minute interview- the maximum that a four-year-old attention span would oblige. Sean played with his bare feet in front of the camera and talked casually about the habits of a stream of transient visitors to his apartment-speed freaks, pot smokers, gurus-and about hating the cops who he saw busting them. As he spoke about his present world, he revealed a mind full of thoughts about his future. The resulting movie won festival prizes around the world, was dissected in the press, and was shown at a White House conference on child welfare.
Although Arlyck moved back to New York when the film was finished, he was often asked if he knew what had happened to the kid from the Haight. There had seemed to be both promise and danger in the path that such a child could follow.
When Arlyck returned in the mid-90s his camera soon became a fixture in Sean's life-following him from 1994-2003. What gradually emerged was a deeper portrait of three generations of American utopians as told from very distinctly west and east coast perspectives.
Viewers may speculate about whether or not Sean's life is successful, what impact his childhood-and to a degree his parents-had on the choices he's made. Sean's father Johnny still cherishes his 60s freedom, and lives in the area north of San Francisco, where he took his family "back to the land" after their time in the Haight. But Sean seems to identify more strongly with his working-class grandparents, Hon and Archie Brown, important Bay Area communists and labor organizers.
"The family dynamic and influences we were attempting to chronicle," explained Arlyck, "slowly began to emerge as this west coast counterpoint to my own family background. As I listened to Sean talk about his father, and especially the inspiration brought to bear by his grandparents' strong working class, communist philosophies, I discovered I was examining my own life as much as I was Sean's."
Arlyck's own personal history on the east coast invites a compare-and-contrast parallel to the life of his recurring film subject. Whereas Sean's Grandfather, Archie Brown, was a communist party leader and longshoreman union organizer, whose crowd-incitement got him thrown out of HUAC hearings, Arlyck's parents were fair-weather communists in New York in the 30s, attending secret meetings but never really committing to the cause. And when Sean marries the beautiful Russian immigrant Zhanna, it parallels Arlyck's early days with his own expatriate wife, the French-born Elisabeth Cardonne.
Arlyck's voice and personal reflection underscore themes found in the new film-that the complex dance of life turns on the seemingly inconsequential moments and choices we encounter every day.
"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. That was what was so wonderful about going back and finding Sean and the people around him-to see how an atypical American family-don't forget we're talking about hippies, commies, and other 'fringe elements'-can still represent major currents of what was happening in America then, and still happens today."