Shadow Lives: Josephine Baker and the Body of Cinema
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Shadow Lives:
Josephine Baker and the Body of Cinema

I suddenly wake up in the middle of the night. The shadows are there, all of them, out there, those from my childhood, and those from books, and particularly those from my dreams. I get up. I walk forward on tiptoe. I chase shadows that disappear, that fade under the electric light, in rooms, bathrooms, through closets, from step to step, in the staircases, under beds, in the corners of curtains. Nothing remains but the house lit up from top to bottom like a screen on which shadows go by [. . .]. From that to the cinema, there is only one step. You can see why I love—why I adore—the movies. They are the endless play of all shadows, a dream in black and white.

—Josephine Baker (1949)1

This meditation on shadows and cinema appears in Josephine Baker's autobiography, a work assembled by journalist Marcel Sauvage. In her translation and analysis of the passage, Claudine Raynaud detects the uncanny revision of Plato's cave—fire made electric light—and a subtle break in the convention of autobiographical contracts.2 Here, reality and imaginary, memory and dream dissolve in a tangle, undermining the promise of coherent stories and subjects. From the depth of successive interiors (bathrooms, stairs, bedrooms) and the privilege of shared perspective, Baker repositions her readers outside, looking in. Nothing remains. The house becomes a screen of flickering shadows, and the startled star, ransacking the intimate corners of her life at midnight, disappears. More than allegorical double or autobiographical anecdote, this passage replays [End Page 7] scenes from Baker's cinematic life: the chase through bathrooms and bedrooms in La Sirène des tropiques (Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas, FR, 1927); the hyperbolic shadows that precede and accompany Baker's appearance on stage in Zou Zou (Marc Allégret, FR, 1934); and the extended domestic dreamscape of Princesse Tam-Tam (Edmond Gréville, FR, 1935). The shadows of cinema—of Baker's cinema and the Cinema—stretch across this brief reflection. They are subversive, defiant, out there even in the dark.

The play of shadows that Baker ascribes to cinema and produces in this autobiographical remix likewise resonates with the practice and theory of the inter-war avant-garde. As Denis Hollier chases shadows across surrealist painting, photography, and autobiography, he reminds us that the shadow is a privileged indexical sign. Shadows are cast on the spot, at the instant of an object's presence. They signify "less the representation of an object, than the effect of an event."3 While the shadow-sign is contemporaneous with its object, the surrealist shadows are multiple, wandering, torn from their objects, or born of objects impaled upon the iconic surface of painted canvas. They introduce "an indecision that makes it difficult to know if one is faced with a real shadow or a represented one, if one is looking at a cast shadow or its image, if one is inside a space of the indexical type or looking at a space of the iconic kind."4 For the first wave of experimental filmmakers in the 1910s and '20s, cinema extended the possibilities of this kind of indexical and temporal shadow play. Where Maxim Gorky saw "not life but the shadow of life [. . .] not movement but the soundless shadow of movement" in 1896, early film theorists like Louis Aragon, Antonin Artaud, Jean Epstein, Louis Delluc, and Germaine Dulac theorized a secret or second life in cinema, a kingdom of specters that could disrupt, confuse, and surpass the object-shadow indexes of everyday life.5 Not shadows of life, but shadows with lives of their own.

While no doubt there is much work to be done in the space between the early twentieth-century avant-garde and Josephine Baker (the parallel tracks of automatic writing and improvisatory dance come immediately to mind), I do not explore these connections in this essay. Nor do I recuperate Baker's cinema for the first wave of experimental European filmmaking. Rather, I read Baker's films as engaged in precisely the kind of "endless play of all shadows" that she describes, one...