Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Gorilla on the Bridge

When you first encountered the scene, you were stunned by its implications to the point of not being able to process it farther; you could not translate its significance as a tool in your own writing and your understanding of the writing of others.  Your circuitry shut it out of you memory, pushing it away as though it were a dream with meanings and implications too fraught to allow inside.

The venue where you saw it is forgotten as well, one of the small, pinched neighborhood theaters with sprung, uncomfortable seats on the mom-and-dad-store fringes of Hollywood, where classics and historical treasures appeared as if by whim between undistinguished double bills, where the ticket takers wore shabby blue suits while trying to accommodate unruly mustaches.

You’d been a fan of Laurel and Hardy at the time, doubtless a reason why you went on that particular night.  When you had concerns about how you could presume to manage any sort of career relative to writing, Laurel and Hardy films injected a sense of purpose.  You were appreciative of the inevitable pace their narratives rode to the splendid moment of combustion, eruption, and some final outrage of a spectacular disintegration that began with the expression on Oliver Hardy’s face.  This particular scene, the one you could not at the time process, was one of the more sublime examples of cosmic chaos.

Some years later, as you read through a series of essays by James Agee, most likely Agee on Film, you came across a sentence that allowed you at last to process what you’d seen in actual words rather than visual images/

The scene—really more of a moment within a scene—featured Laurel and Hardy as piano movers.  They are maneuvering a piano over a rope bridge, strung precariously over a gaping chasm.  “Midway across,” Agee writes, “they meet a gorilla.”

You may have read the entire collection of Agee essays.  You may also have not done so.  What you did do, and what you now wish you had in your hands, are the manuscript pages you embarked upon.  You called it The Gorilla on the Bridge.  Those were remarkable days in your young life; you frequently wrote as though on the manic cycle of what was then referred to as manic-depressive syndrome.  You learned a good deal from your writing during that time of your life, but you had not yet learned how to drive through to the finish, to stay with the project, in metaphor abandoning projects as the subsequent gorilla arrived on the bridge.

Perhaps it is well you do not have the pages, perhaps the time elapsed since their birth has meant something approximating growth in your abilities.  To add to all these perhaps tropes, perhaps these lines represent an opportunity to reconstruct not merely a story but rather the evolution of the sense of what a story is.  You’d have been sure to have notions then of what the gorilla represented, even to the point of a well-justified explanation for what it was doing on that bridge in that particular moment.  One thing you have learned—in some measure from Moby-Dick—is that it is possible to tell readers too much about whales to the point where they begin rooting for Ahab. This realization could well become the driving force; the gorilla as protagonist.

Literature is filled with Leviathans, mocha-colored whales, gargantuan sorts, King Kong sorts.  With due respect to the original King Kong, he would not think to venture onto so spindly and restive a bridge; he had his eyes on, shall we say, other matters.

Things to keep this notion and image alive:  Where was the gorilla going? Whence had he come?  What was on his mind?  Why should we care about him?

Imagine his frustration at seeing a roly-poly man in a bowler hat and a virtual scarecrow of a man, exerting themselves with, of all things, a piano.  Imagine him, having to explain to his mate why he was late coming home.

The bridge itself is a remarkable metaphor for life, causing you to wonder if that seriously neglected Thornton Wilder had at one point in his life seen the Laurel and Hardy film.  What effect might it have contributed to The Bridge of San Luis Rey?

We think we have answers up our sleeves when we set forth to dramatize some existential nightmare.  Filled with confidence, we pile on the weal and woe to the point where the moment of pure dramatic impasse is reached, then we—at least you—marvel at our gorilla, then pause, our message and its supportive metaphor looms glorious in opposition.

Then we pause, waiting for an answer, congratulating ourselves for the gorillas, our attention focused squarely in that unique landscape of challenge.

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