City Paper is not for tourists
When Sean Farrell is asked, “Do you turn on?” he replies, “No. I smoke grass.” He then goes on to say that he eats grass, too—which he actually prefers—that other drugs are scary, and that you can tell a speed freak by how skinny he is. He knows that people get busted for weed but doesn’t believe it will happen to him. It’s not because Farrell believes he’s smarter than everyone else, as those who break the law often do. Rather, it’s because he’s “too little.” See, when this interview took place, in 1969, Farrell was 4.
Following Sean is writer-director Ralph Arlyck’s second movie about Farrell, the sharp, chatty son of his one-time upstairs neighbors. Arlyck, a native New Yorker, was living in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury when he decided to turn Farrell into a film-school project. He used a skateboard to track the restless kid as he ran around the neighborhood, and he eventually sat Farrell down for a quick talk about topics ranging from why he doesn’t wear shoes (“They’re sweaty”) to rudimentary anatomy (“You need bones so you don’t…squash”). Farrell also says that his family has a dog because the cops bother them, then thinks a second and asks, “Why are the police around so much? Huh?”
Arlyck’s resulting short, Sean, became a minor sensation, winning festival awards and even a White House screening. What stirred up audiences most, of course, was Sean’s drug use, and for this Arlyck felt some guilt: “This boy and his family have become a symbol,” he says early in Following Sean. “And it was my fault.” Farrell wasn’t the only symbolic subject Arlyck trained his camera on while living in the counterculture’s most famous neighborhood, though: He captured hippies hanging out, hippies doing drugs, and, of course, hippies evading the fuzz. Some of this footage has been integrated into Arlyck’s full-length follow-up to Sean, most of which he filmed between 1994 and 2003, after tracking down the former kiddie stoner and his parents.
Following Sean became much more than a whatever-happened-to-that-kid story, however. Arlyck, who made a few other documentary shorts after his student project and has taught film production at Vassar, found parallels in Farrell’s history and his own: Farrell’s West Coast grandparents were active Communists; Arlyck’s East Coast parents dabbled in but never committed to the Reds. Both of the men married expatriates, too: Arlyck began a relationship with a Frenchwoman while he still lived in the Haight, and Sean meets a Russian woman during Following Sean’s filming. These similarities helped Arlyck turn his doc into a delicately woven, generation-spanning examination of family, idealism, and the classic question of nature versus nurture.
Arlyck’s light touch makes Following Sean a mesmerizing 87 minutes. Combining still photos with film, the movie touches on everything you expect of the late ’60s: the civil-rights demonstrations, the police riots, the whole job-as-shackles lifestyle. These sequences are shown in whatever format the director had handy, in color and in black-and-white, with sound and without. Then Arlyck and his wife move out of the neighborhood and into a more responsible lifestyle, and the filmmaker captures events with his own home movies.
We also get, of course, nearly 10 years of the grown Sean’s life. Unlike his father, who divorced Sean’s mother, married another woman, and then left her and renounced his share of their possessions in favor a broke, nothing-left-to-lose existence, Sean pursues a relatively normal suburban life, living paycheck to paycheck as an electrician while he hopes to go to school and buy a home. Arlyck interviews Farrell’s charismatic, still-hippie dad as well as his mother, sister, and a half-brother Farrell remains close to. For his portion of the story, Arlyck gathers together his elderly parents and some members of his extended family to talk about their experiences with the underground, which they relate with giggles. When no one is sharing a story, Arlyck’s contemplative narration takes over as some 30 years’ worth of images unspool, not necessarily in chronological order.
Without making too much of a fuss, Arlyck holds Farrell and himself up as not-quite reflections of each other. The film is casual but never artless. More important, it’s never calculating or clichéd, either. This is a vision of the turbulent ’60s soundtracked not by Buffalo Springfield and Jefferson Airplane but by John Fahey and Sonny Sharrock (as well as by such non-period artists as Coachwhips and Cass McCombs). Following Sean may continue Arlyck’s depiction of Farrell as a symbol, but this time he’s representing fate and the unpredictable paths one’s life can take, not irresponsible parenting. About that, the filmmaker should feel no guilt at all.
Nearly 30 years have also passed between Alexandre Aja’s remake of The Hills Have Eyes and Wes Craven’s 1977 original, but the update is far less surprising than Farrell’s tale. Aja, who made his American debut with last year’s grisly High Tension, has outfitted Craven’s classic in state-of-the-art horror style, giving it (1) a better story and (2) a lot more blood. As for the sense of campy fun that should arguably accompany a slasher flick, well, I guess that’s what Scream 3 is for.
Working with High Tension collaborator Grégory Levasseur, Aja follows Craven’s story pretty faithfully—after getting a quick scare/bloodletting out of the way, in which some poor dude with a Geiger counter ends up joining a few other bodies that hang from the back of a car like post-wedding-reception tin cans. Then Ethel and Bob (Kathleen Quinlan and Ted Levine) are celebrating their anniversary with a road trip to California, on which they insist their less-than-enthusiastic children accompany them. Eldest daughter Lynne (Vinessa Shaw) needs to placate both her newborn and her husband, Doug (Aaron Stanford), who doesn’t get along with his father-in-law. Teenagers Bobby and Brenda (Dan Byrd and Emilie de Ravin) pretty much do nothing but take care of their two dogs and complain.
Especially after the family takes the shortcut advised by a creepy gas-station owner (Tom Bower) —followed, naturally, with a “Have a safe trip!” and a greasy grin—and ends up stranded in the desert with a couple of blown tires. “This is so fucked,” Brenda keeps repeating. Of course, at this point she has no idea how right she is.
Aja ever so gradually reveals to the audience who’s lurking in the hills, with a grunt here or a malformed hand or foot there as the residents first case their new guests. Meanwhile, the scripters’ spin on the original is also slowly developed: A sign reading “No Trespassing, United States Government Department of Energy” hangs on a fenced-off area, and newspaper clippings hanging in the gas station speak of nuclear testing and miners who were left unprotected from its aftereffects. It’s a good half-hour into the movie’s 107 minutes before the Deliverance-esque mutants fully reveal themselves.
The sensitive may want to shield their eyes after this, because here’s where Aja lets loose. As in High Tension, buckets of blood, guts, and brains are spilled as the hill dwellers hunt down their human prey. There’s still some subtle creepiness—and a touch of Craven-style symbolism—accompanying the carnage, mostly in the form of the mannequin-populated happy-household setups that remain from the testing and that the freaks now call home. But mostly, the attacks and murders are in-your-face graphic—and worse, the sexual assault merely hinted at in Craven’s film is made much, much clearer. A pillow fight ensues, but it’s hardly enough to relieve the vileness.
This, it seems, is the new face of fright: no more camp, no more suggestion, no more edge-of-your-seat fun—only ultrarealistic, unapologetically nasty bloodshed. More important, no real social resonance. Aja and Eli Roth and whoever it is who makes those Saw movies may believe that they’ve recaptured the vibe of the ’70s films that inspired them, but this Hills, at least, doesn’t use horror as an excuse for allegory. It uses allegory as an excuse for horror. Or maybe horror as an excuse for horror. There’s no doubt that Aja is a gifted craftsman of the genre, but his vision of it may leave some fans with a new appreciation of the Scary Movie franchise.CP