Distribution Automatique

Sunday, June 22


There's a scene in Eugene Eustache's movie The Mother and The Whore (1973) in which Jean-Pierre Leaud sits in his room and listens to an entire record. You see him moving the tone arm onto the disc and quietly enjoying the whole record by himself, nodding his head to the rhythms, smiling, thinking, staring into space. I thought of this scene when reading, recently, Edmund Wilson's autobiographical novel published in 1929, I Thought of Daisy. There are so many good things to be said of this novel, but reading it I couldn't resist the idea of blogging the entire sequence during which the narrator lets himself into his friend Daisy's apartment, and, finding her not there, decides to wait for her, during which time he plays a record on her phonograph:

    "There was a phonograph beside me on the table: it was a small cheap portable one. I regarded it with hebetude. Without Daisy, it seemed as depressing as the glasses, as the garments, as the magazines. But involuntarily grasping at a last resource against despair, I picked up the heap of phonograph records, lying half-shuffled, like a battered pack of cards. Scrupulously I pushed them even and ran through them, reading all the titles: With You in Paradise, from Pretty Kitty, sung by Bee Brewster; Ben Bolt, by John McCormack; Chanson Hindoue, Saxophone Solo; So's Your Old Man, Fox Trot, by Fred Casey and His Burglar-alarm Boys; La Forza del Destino, Red Seal, Duet by Caruso and Scotti; Mamie Rose, Fox Trot, by Jake King and his Eight Kentucky Mocking Birds. I remembered that Mamie Rose was the fox-trot which Daisy had so offended by playing, the night of Ray Coleman's party, when Rita had been reciting her poems. I got up and put it on the machine.
    "The record, I noted, as I wound the crank, had been made by the American Melody Company. It was a pale and unpleasant brown and seemed to have been molded by river mud. Remembering the handsome victrola which I had seen at Ray Coleman's apartment I pitied Daisy a little; yet she had had the right sort of bravery, the bravery to go free when love had passed! The only needles I could find were buried in an ash-tray under cigarette butts and burnt matches, and it was impossible to tell the used from the new. The first I tried began with a blurt, a hideous stuttering blur. Still dominated by Rita's tastes, I felt that turning on the phonograph would be like drilling with a dental engine: Rita had not cared for popular music- had thought lightly of even the Rosenkavalier!
    "The second needle turned out no better, but I let it go; and presently Mamie Rose emerged as a kind of fiendish jig, running itself off at impossible speed; too fast, too nasal, too shrill. I made an effort to regulate it and only effected a harrowing descent of pitch, like the grasping and discordant howl of some demon from inside the machine crying out an intolerable agony at being compressed from one tempo to another. I listened for the first night I had met Daisy, but merely succeeded in having my heart wrung by the first night I had heard Rita's poems. The spring of the little phonograph held only for a single winding, so that the record began too fast and was already running down before it came to the end; but, what was worse, it had no horn, so that the demon inside the box, beating in its cramped black prison like a panic-stricken bat, had to squeeze out, as it were, through a crack- the little aperture at the base of the "arm." No wonder it chittered and squealed so thinly, like an unwinding wire of sound, like a wire, rusted, wry and eaten, worn away so that it seemed almost snapping, or so rough that it would stick and stammer over some echolalic phrase! So completely had the music been robbed of resonance that it seemed a mere memorandum of music, as if some writer in sound had scribbled down the skeleton of an orchestration, with the brasses brief tin-whistle blasts and raspings, the strings a jotted jingle of cicada chirpings, and the tympani scored as tiny explosions and echoless crashes of glass. And the "vocal refrain," when it suddenly began, had as little in common with the human voice as the noises of the instruments had with music: it gave the effect of some mere momentary modulation in the quick mechanical jiggling of a railroad train- it was a sharper shrillness, a more insistent iteration: There she goes- Mamie Rose- She-loves-me! Don't seem to show it!- How do I know it?- It's A.B.C.-She's- a crackle of high-pitched syllables ending with aggravatin'-But when I want a little lovin' she don't keep me waitin!- She's proud and snooty- But she's my cutie- She tells me- a second slip of dulled and driven cogs- That's how I knows- Mamie Rose- She-Loves-me! The jazz departed, with redoubled violence and complexities of deformation, into a last frantic charivari- then, after a brief unpleasing flourish, was bitten off as abruptly as it had begun.
    "I lifted the needle, clicked the little catch and went over to the window..."