SHADOW LIVES

“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 [i]

This meditation on shadows and cinema appears in Josephine Baker’s autobiography. In Claudine Raynaud’s translation and analysis of the passage, she detects an uncanny revision of Plato’s cave—fire made electric light—and a subtle break in the convention of autobiographical contracts.[ii]  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 mere allegorical double or autobiographical anecdote, this passage replays scenes from Baker’s cinematic life: the chase through bathrooms and bedrooms in La Sirène des Tropiques (Henri Étiévant and Mario Nalpas, 1927); the hyperbolic shadows that precede and accompany Baker’s appearance on stage in Zou Zou (Marc Allégret, 1934); and the extended domestic dreamscape of Princesse Tam-Tam (Edmond Gréville, 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.


[i] Les Mémoires de Joséphine Baker, collected and adapted by Marcel Sauvage (Paris: Dilecta, 2006): 146.

[ii] Claude Raynaud, “Foil, Fiction and Phantasm: Josephine Baker and Princess Tam TamThe Scholar and Feminist Online 6.1-6.2 (Fall 2007/Spring 2008): 2.

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