This photo of a scooter-riding rat by GOAT, claimed to be the first AI-powered street artist, was taken on a recent trip to New York. For me, so many places we visited in USA evoked sounds and images from books, films, songs and newspaper reports coming out of that country over many decades.
Among the many books I read as a child, My Friend Flicka and Green Grass of Wyoming left a lasting impression. I recall little of the characters in the novels, but the feeling of wide-open spaces and lying in the grass gazing at the sky were things I related to strongly at the time. I was interested to learn that Flicka means ‘little girl’ in Swedish and I didn’t remember that the protagonist was a boy ─ perhaps because it didn’t matter.
On a much earlier trip, flying to Chicago and then Indiana, I was awed by the vastness of the country and the extent of its mountains. When they were quite young, our children were given a book with the words of “This Land is your Land” and we sang it with great gusto as they went to bed. On this trip, we did indeed travel “From California to the New York island / From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters”. Now I wonder if the words of the song unconsciously influenced my choice of itinerary, although today the erasure of native Americans in the lyrics sits heavily on my appreciation and enjoyment of the song.
I read Steinbeck while living in South Africa in the 1970s, but it wasn’t the stories of Cannery Row that are indelibly imprinted on my mind, but the troubling, poignant novella Of Mice and Men set in Soledad, not far from San Francisco . . . and I’m realising that it’s often stories related to animals that leave such a strong impression on me.
I used to go to Saturday movie matinees in the Australian town where I grew up. There were two movies theatre there and I usually went by myself, often choosing to go to the theatre showing adult movies. When I was about 11 years old I saw Giant, the classic movie with James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor set in the Texas oilfields, and Gidget a few years later. Both had a significant effect on my ideas about America – particularly Gidget, as I lived in a seaside town, where going to the beach was a regular activity. The film, the first of its genre, brought Californian surf culture into the dark interior of my small-town theatre, just a few steps away from views of the town’s beach. During our stay in San Francisco, we walked long and hard from Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach to see the wide misty sands of the Pacific Ocean (Gidget was filmed on the Malibu coast) and noticed a guy with ‘SAN FRANPSYCHO SURF CLUB” on his T shirt walking in front of us.
The Golden Gate Bridge, of course, was frighteningly familiar from Hitchcock’s Vertigo. As well as the colour of the bridge, the salmon rosebuds in the bouquet Carlotta Valdes holds in the painting that Madeline gazes at have stayed in my mind. When similar flowers in Madeline’s posy swirl and disintegrate, forewarning of her drowning, the viewer is pulled into the vortex. Unfortunately, we didn’t go to the Legion of Honour Museum where the painting of Carlotta still hangs.
And then there is Kerouac. I must have been around 15 or 16 when I read On the Road, some of it in the school canteen at lunch time, where I was questioned by the headmaster: did my parents know I was reading this book? Now I realise that in choosing the route we took on our trip – San Francisco to Cape Cod and then New York – I was following key sites in books and films.
Another road story that affected my thinking was Easy Rider. Before I went to see the film the year it came out, I was told by friends how ‘good’ it was, but I was deeply disturbed by its ending and couldn’t understand why they didn’t mention it. A few years later, while walking through a camping ground in South Africa, an Afrikaans family warned their children to be careful of the ‘hippies’ – they were referring to us. It was a time of discrimination and change and The Band’s song “The Weight”, played in Easy Rider, still recalls that era. So many concerns expressed in the movie remain, only expressed in a different way and often more effectively.
Although 2001 A Space Odyssey and Star Wars took us to other worlds, these films were so essentially American that I was often reminded of them during our more mundane trip. I saw Kubrick’s movie at the Dendy Theatre in Brighton, Melbourne, and was so impressed – especially by its opening scene. Wiki tells me that the film “exploded the conventional narrative form, restructuring the conventions of the three-act drama” and there have been many more filmic explosions since. The movie version of Truman Capote’s book In Cold Blood was another one. Not the story, but the stark black and white cinematography, while the freeze-frame at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was unexpected and hold-your-breath shocking after such sympathy for the characters was built.
We remembered the Credence Clearwater Revival song “Lodi” when contemplating touring southeast of SF. The music was so familiar, but now I discovered Lodi actually is a place . . . .“Oh Lord stuck in Lodi again”. No, we didn’t go there but did spend some time around San Francisco Bay, visiting the Albany Shoreline, which was formerly a dumping ground for industrial waste and is now reclaimed and replanted as a walking area for people and their dogs. Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay” was constantly in my mind as we walked there.
In Cape Cod we visited Hyannis, so much a part of news reports and magazine articles in the JFK era. From the beach I thought I could just see the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port in the distance.
And as I walked up Fifth Avenue New York, taking photos of marvellous buildings, a man straight of a Woody Allen film told me why he thought they were painting its façade. An ordinary conversation: I offered a comment, he responded and we went our way as if we saw each other every day! Outside a tenement on the Upper East side we saw a parcel I had to pick up, sent to the wrong Airbnb address, on top of the letterboxes inside the glass-fronted door. As we waited for someone to come home, unlock the door and allow us to get it, I remembered the convoluted realities of Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy: City of Glass, The Locked Room . . . .
Back in the redwood forests of Marin County, I remembered my study of North American nature writing in a third year Literature and Environment Unit at University of Tasmania. Among the short stories that affected me deeply was “The Moose on the Wall”, an essay by American writer Edward Hoagland about a taxidermist’s shop in Vermont. Along with other set texts, this piece led me to pursue Animal Studies in 2000, just as this interdisciplinary academic field was beginning to develop. In online magazine Numero Cinq, Adam Arvidson describes Hoagland’s style: there are “no villains ̶ characters, yes, even characters acting in ways Hoagland seems to want us all to avoid, but there is never any specific criticism”. Instead, Hoagland relies on meticulous descriptive passages with “carefully constructed phrases and images delivered at perfect moments, rather than long tirades”. This way of writing produces a devastating effect and it was a style I wanted to emulate.
Surprisingly then, I’ve been influenced by American culture, even though I would have denied it before this trip. Some things change and others remain the same, but with both amazing and alarming possibilities in this age of relentless exposure to mass media and advances in AI .