“Following Sean” and “Mouth to Mouth”
Two films I saw at the SF Int’l Film Festival spoke to each other in an odd and serendipitous way. Together, they contribute to the ongoing effort to define and rewrite the Sixties, or at least to shape our understanding of cultural currents that we usually associate with that historical period.
One film, “Mouth to Mouth,” is made by a Canadian/British director Alison Murray (exec. produced by Atom Egoyan, whose films I’ve mostly liked quite well), and tells the story of a young alienated teenage girl who gets recruited into SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge). The beginning seemed hopeful when a handsome shirtless blond guy hands our heroine a small flyer inviting her to learn more about SPARK. Soon thereafter she stumbles upon the group as it demonstrates how to save a person who is overdosing, including giving a quick dose of Naloxene (? can’t remember the exact drug, but I know that folks involved with Needle Exchange here in SF use it too) to resuscitate a comatose person.
But following this portrayal of the first encounter with a radical communal group things quickly go sour, though our protagonist doesn’t withdraw in disgust as we might expect her to. The real “leader” of the group, another shirtless guy named Harry (one of the most bizarre aspects of this film is the absurdly unrealistic portrayal of Harry and the other guy NEVER wearing a shirt at any time, regardless of circumstance or weather or anything!), grabs her bag and empties it out on the street, and claims all her personal possessions for the collective. Soon we seem him alternately inspiring and browbeating the former junkies and even his own associates in the collective (one of whom is a street medic, and the only woman of color in the group).
Sherry, our heroine, becomes integrated into the group, which is becoming more and more like Synanon than anything else. A subplot has her mother tracking her down, and eventually joining the cult herself.
We laughed on the way out that this movie is practically designed to innoculate the viewer against anything collective. If it’s a collective, it must really be an authoritarian cult. In that sense, it is a straightforward attack on the possibility of breaking free of this society, reinforcing the larger right-wing discourse of the past decades that argues the “sixties” were just a childish diversion, hopelessly trying to create false alternatives, that when really examined are actually authoritarian nightmares.
Synanon and other cults that grew from the counterculture were in fact authoritarian nightmares. In “Mouth to Mouth” the members are coerced into groupthink, their heads are shaved when they’ve achieved full abandonment of their selves to the group (as determined by Harry, their faultless leader), they are threatened, punished, cajoled, coerced, and generally made to feel small and stupid unless they stick to the consensus as defined by Harry and reinforced by his acolytes.
Sherry eventually breaks free when her best friend, and the other most rebellious girl in the bunch, is killed by Harry’s punishment system. Her mother stays behind with the cult though. The film is an extended polemic against alternatives and for bourgeois society, which is of course made to seem reasonable, sane and just by comparison. But of course there is no portrayal of the countless interesting collective alternatives, plenty of which have survived the past half century, and which offer a much more complex and difficult to dismiss saga of trying to make something radically different. Perhaps it is not the responsibility of this movie to adequately address that (it’s just a story, after all), but given the larger anti-collective, anti-cooperative discourse that pooh-poohs anything but capitalism and markets, this movie finds itself as a propaganda piece.
The other film that addressed the “sixties” in a more intelligent fashion is called “Following Sean”. In it, the filmmaker Ralph Arlyck revisits Sean, a kid he filmed in 1966 at age 4 when he was living in the same Haight-Ashbury apartment building. When his original film came out it won a lot of awards and played a lot of festivals. It scandalized many with 4-year-old Sean’s matter-of-fact recounting of smoking pot, scenes of him running around among all the hippies on Haight Street, telling about speed freaks in his house, etc.
This film gives us a few looks at the original movie, but is really an extended reminiscence and comparison of two ways of living–two families, the filmmaker’s and Sean’s, have parallel but radically different stories. Arlyck spends a huge amount of time on himself and his life and his family, recounting what happened after he shot the original Sean film, and we meet his French wife back in 1969 and today, his grown sons, his now elderly parents, and so on. It’s really a bit much. But juxtaposed to this is a series of profiles of Sean today, his marrying a Russian emigre, his dropout father’s integrity but hopelessly flakey existence, his radical commie grandparents (from his mother’s side), and his sister and mother. What we end up with is a human portrait, self-indulgent to be sure, but one of a family of passionately engaged people (Sean’s) as observed by Arlyck, whose own family always stays a bit aloof, “dabbling” in Communism back in the 30s, matched in the 60s by Arlyck as a confused, alienated and insecure observer of the tumult surrounding him in the Haight-Ashbury, a place he soon left for the comfort of a leafy New York suburb where he remained ever since.
I liked “Following Sean” better than any of the people I saw it with. They were mostly very irritated by how self-indulgent the filmmaker is, and how dominant his self-centered story was. But I thought it worked pretty well, especially because it is juxtaposed to Sean’s and his family’s story. By the end I was ruminating on how heavy we take things and how fast history flows by, and how little impact any of us really have as we try so hard to shape events and circumstances.
Sean is probably more political than we saw in the movie (Arlyck is apolitical in that typical upper-middle-class New York way); his Russian wife leaves him before the film ends because I bet she was dissatisfied that he wasn’t more ambitious. He was trying to go to law school at one point, which seemed oddly unnecessary, and he abandons that by the end of the film too, probably because the climbing Russian wife wasn’t driving him on anymore. But the film doesn’t really tell us that, I’m just guessing. Sean’s father, the same one who let him run wild as a 4 year old in 1966 in the Haight, is a dignified old hippie living in the Sierra foothills now. He has no assets and no pension and his story throws into our face the problem for a whole generation of people who haven’t taken seriously the need to provide security for themselves, who probably thought the revolution was coming and they didn’t need to worry about old age. Or maybe they thought their community would take care of them, but then over the past thirty years, the communities that people thought they’d created have mostly disintegrated. Oops. In a way it’s another backhanded attack on the idealism and hopefulness of the movements that we call the ‘Sixties’. See, you shoulda got a real job with a pension… now look at you! But Sean says his father’s ideas are right, even if he hasn’t really lived up to them, in what I thought was a very poignant and interesting testimony. Sean becomes a union eletrician during the film and afterwards we were told by the editor that he had become a union electrician teacher and was doing well.
His deceased grandfather, Archie Brown, a well-known local Communist Party leader, would probably be proud of him, even if he had a hard time processing the fact that his descendents weren’t party members and weren’t even particularly engaged in political organizing. In fact, political organizing as carried out by the old CP has disappeared for now. If it makes a comeback it’ll be under a new banner, and that’d be a good thing. The tired old CP is gone for good… and we can’t regret that!