Skip to main content

by Rinaldo Censi

Observed carefully, the torture of Robert-François Damiens, whose execution took place by quartering, resembles, despite its unsustainable brutality, the bizarre plot of a comic slapstick. Domestic, former military man, accused of attempted regicide against Louis XV, Damiens was sentenced on March 22, 1757 “to make the amende honorable before the main door of the Church of Paris”, remembers Michel Foucault in the first memorable page of his Discipline and Punish, citing the documents of the trial. Armed with a small knife (the blade hardly reaches eight centimeters), Damiens cuts the King in the side. Does he just want to scare him? Devilish monster, he runs away. Then he lets himself be captured by the royal guard. Louis XV advocates forgiveness, but the inflexible Parliament, bordering on zeal, has no mercy. He will be the last criminal sentenced to death by quartering. In the Pièces originales et procédure du procès fait à Robert-François Damiens, the execution is summarized step by step: «”Taken and conveyed in a cart, wearing nothing but a shirt, holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds”»; then «“In the said cart, to the Place de Grève, where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and calves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds”».

These were the ideal purposes. What happened, in reality, diverges from the Parliament’s intentions. «“Finally, he was quartered. This last operation was very long, because the horses used were not accustomed to drawing; consequently, instead of four, six were needed; and when that did not suffice, they were forced, in order to cut off the wretch’s thighs, to sever the sinews and hack at the joints … The spectators were all edified by the solicitude of the parish priest of St Paul’s who despite his great age did not spare himself in offering consolation to the patient.”» recounts the Gazette d’Amsterdam of 1 April 1757, quoted by Foucault.

This torture has the aspect of a real spectacular event. The report that Foucault transcribes, relying on the testimony of the petty cavalry officer Bouton (included in the book by Anne-Léo Zévaès entitled Damiens le régicide (1933)) appears as a succession of sequences. Shots, whose frame is perhaps History. The exhibition, as we said, is horrible. A kind of horror made almost comical by the ineptitude of the executioners, who, similar to Laurel and Hardy, transform the torture into a sort of gigantic slowed “gag”. A slowburn sequence: « “The sulphur was lit, but the flame was so poor that only the top skin of the hand was burnt, and that only slightly. Then the executioner, his sleeves rolled up, took the steel pincers, which had been especially made for the occasion, and which were about a foot and a half long, and pulled first at the calf of the right leg, then at the thigh, and from there at the two fleshy parts of the right arm; then at the breasts. Though a strong, sturdy fellow, this executioner found it so difficult to tear away the pieces of flesh that he set about the same spot two or three times, twisting the pincers as he did so, and what he took away formed at each part a wound about the size of a six-pound crown piece”». Screams and suffering must have been gruesome. Damiens raises his head, observes himself. The executioner throws hot liquid on the sores. Damiens asks for forgiveness from God. The pincers are in place, the horses ready. But the show is only about to begin. The incompetence is total. «“The horses tugged hard, each pulling straight on a limb, each horse held by an executioner. After a quarter of an hour, the same ceremony was repeated and finally, after several attempts, the direction of the horses had to be changed, thus: those at the arms were made to pull towards the head, those at the thighs towards the arms, which broke the arms at the joints. This was repeated several times without success. He raised his head and looked at himself. Two more horses had to be added to those harnessed to the thighs, which made six horses in all. Without success”».

Reduced to a mannequin in the hands of a bunch of dumb led by the executioner, Damiens, assisted by the curate, witnesses his end, perpetually deferred. The horses skid, they fall to the ground. The executioners confabulate as he spasms. What to do? Cut him into pieces to facilitate the work of these horses suffering from chronic laziness? «“After two or three attempts, the executioner Samson and he who had used the pincers each drew out a knife from his pocket and cut the body at the thighs instead of severing the legs at the joints; the four horses gave a tug and carried off the two thighs after them, namely, that of the right side first, the other following; then the same was done to the arms, the shoulders, the arm-pits and the four limbs; the flesh had to be cut almost to the bone, the horses pulling hard carried off the right arm first and the other afterwards”». Then: «“When the four limbs had been pulled away, the confessors came to speak to him; but his executioner told them that he was dead, though the truth was that I saw the man move, his lower jaw moving from side to side as if he were talking. One of the executioners even said shortly afterwards that when they had lifted the trunk to throw it on the stake, he was still alive. The four limbs were untied from the ropes and thrown on the stake set up in the enclosure in line with the scaffold, then the trunk and the rest were covered with logs and faggots, and fire was put to the straw mixed with this wood”».
Everything has been reduced to ashes. A long, endless operation, lasting hours, which Bouton attends together with his son. A dog, the next day, lies down on the lawn where the stake took place. Sent away several times, he tended to return there. It is not difficult to understand, Bouton observes, that the animal found that place warmer than anywhere else.

Bouton is obviously not the only spectator of the execution. The wealthy classes, for example, could grab the best seats and watch the quartering. So, the story of Casanova comes to mind. In the second volume of his Memoirs he rents a window for three louis “just in front of Place de Grève”. It hosts three ladies: Madame Angélique Lambertini, mademoiselle Thérèse de la Meure and her aunt, Madame XXX, all «intrigued by that horrendous spectacle». Another character accompanies the ladies, Count Eduardo Tiretta. The scene is worth to be reported: «“On March the 28th, the day of Damien’s martyrdom, I went to fetch the ladies in good time; and as the carriage would scarcely hold us all, no objection was made to my taking my sweetheart on my knee, and in this order we reached the Place de Greve. The three ladies packing themselves together as tightly as possible took up their positions at the window, leaning forward on their elbows, so as to prevent us seeing from behind”».
The group observed the execution for four hours: «“While this victim of the Jesuits was being executed, I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks – writes Casanova, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and the fat aunt did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened?”». Nonetheless, another scene takes place during the torture. «“The fact was that Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round. Finding himself behind her, he had taken the precaution to lift up her dress to avoid treading on it. That, no doubt, was according to the rule; but soon after, on giving an involuntary glance in their direction, I found that Tiretta had carried his precautions rather far, and, not wishing to interrupt my friend or to make the lady feel awkward, I turned my head and stood in such a way that my sweetheart could see nothing of what was going on; this put the good lady at her ease. For two hours after I heard a continuous rustling”».
What does Casanova see of Damiens’ torture? Almost nothing. Impressed by the screams, he looks away (isn’t that what we do too in front of a horror movie?). His view is also walled up. The insistent rustle of women’s clothes remains right in his ears, while off-screen the crowd watches a man who is about to be dismembered. In one of his essays entitled “Benjamin dans Casanova” (see L’espèce de chose mélanconie, Flammarion, 1978, pp. 209-218) Jean Louis Schefer analyzes this scene framed in History that Casanova tells. «This text – he writes – remains one of the great scripts of our culture. He explains to me what exactly happens at the movies: nothing. In other words, nothing more than the illusion of showing». A few pages earlier, he had stated about cinema: «I at least know that a well-made, poorly-made film has ceased to send me back to a critical distance. Beam of dust above my head, I witness the real; like Casanova to History, doing something else (what I see is neither a theater nor an opera: their enormous mutual difference). What I see is the real of the body sitting there, without fringes or edges. A gigantic machine that leads to this precise slaughterhouse of reflections. I think you don’t go to the movies for the sense but to bring the most successful hallucination as close as possible, the better hallucinating, the most gigantic thing: the whole slaughterhouse that gazes”».

Would the real of “cinema” be the theater? The space in which a homme ordinaire witnesses a projection of images that parade, perhaps distracted, thinking of something else (the rustle that comes from a couple sitting behind him)? But then, how to conceive a frame for the movies? How to frame them? Maybe the curtains that separate the architectural structure from the screen (a sort of parergon) indicate it, mark its limit? But we are in a dark room, and we hardly see that curtain, which acts as a curtain, not like a golden frame, maybe from the Baroque era (it is also true that art, especially contemporary art, has questioned the frame; we refer to the remarkable essay by Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, “À partir du cadre (vignettes)”, in Annexes – de l’oeuvre d’art, Ed. La part de l’Oeil, 1999, pp. 181-223) .
If the frame of the painting acts as a space of orientation, this is not the case in cinema. It is worth taking up the bazinian distinction between frame and masking, included in his famous essay entitled Peinture et cinéma: «“The outer edges of the screen are not, as the technical jargon would seem to imply, the frame of the film image. They are the edges of a piece of masking that shows only a portion of reality. The picture frame polarizes space inwards. On the contrary, what the screen shows us seems to be part of something prolonged indefinitely into the universe. A frame is centripetal, the screen centrifugal”». So: is it the theater itself, its architectural structure that acts as a frame in relation to the screen? Of course, we need a “picture”, we need to frame. At least one window is needed. A piece of masking. But a piece of masking is not a frame. Simply, it serves to “make a picture”. In psychoanalytic terms, J.-B. Pontalis (see his essay entitled Fenêtres), says that “framing” would therefore be «The definitely necessary condition for psychic reality to take the place it deserves, so that analysis can give movement to thought, memory, word. The painter needs the limits of a canvas so that the limitless of a landscape appears, so that a lamp would be not just an object, but an infinite source of light; a theatrical plateau is needed so that one scene would be also another scene; the art of photography resides largely on the quality of the frame».
Even a film slips away from all sides (into the universe, says Bazin). It has no borders, although it is structured starting from the edges of a piece of masking projected on a screen. So it may happen that, like Casanova at the en of that brutal sequence of History, very cinematic, told by some witnesses, nothing would remain but the “framing” a distinct rustle of cloths. Similarly, a film may leave us only a perverse chain of details and enlargements. The edges of a piece of masking shows only a portion of reality, says André Bazin. But what remains, what the viewer absorbs, it is none other than the second montage that he himself produces, that which his memory holds: his experience while the images flow.
Here’s a solicitation of Jean Louis Schefer: the real at the movies is not the referent of the image. The pole that establishes the real is the spectator in the dark. The screen would resemble to a window open into the world (a piece of masking), but the real deals with the experience that each one of those spectators feel: the slaughterhouse that gazes. Each one of them experiences, and at the same time retains something of the image: its duration, but also a sort of relief, something that ends up seemingly “framed”, destined to disturb his memory, beyond the continuity of the projection : «And perhaps the film is also this, insofar as we can speak of it in terms of pictures: it is such an image, a series of pictures that have no outside (it is perhaps the beginning of the film that ensures the connected position of the viewer and overturns the edges of the image in the suggestion of continuity or adequate articulation?»).

Do we need a window (perhaps overlooking Place de Grève), do we need to frame so we can isolate a moment of pleasure (or horror)? This is maybe what the three films chosen for this program highlight. Three films that can be seen, however, in a different setting (a different frame): that of the website Not that of a movie theater and not even that of History. That of your computer. In the first one, (nostalgia) (Hollis Frampton, 1971), some photographs burn on an electric stove, while someone tries to snatch them from oblivion by telling their story. But this voice distorts the sequence. In fact, the memory is not linked to the photo that is burning, but to the one that will follow. We could say: in (nostalgia) the framing creates a double margin, that of the edges of the screen and that of the edges of a photograph that is disappearing from our view, while a voice would like to keep it, framing its content verbally, but it gets the sequence wrong, creating an optical/spoken short circuit.

In the second one, the most paradigmatic, Frame (Richard Serra, 1969), someone traffics around a white wall. We only see the hands on the edge of the screen, equipped with a ruler. Someone would like to measure its borders. We hear voices taking measurements, inch by inch. We discover that this is not a white wall, but a white shape placed in front of a window. When it is raised, the same hands would take the measure of the window frame, zealously indicating the dimensions. The view that we see is a street in New York marked by buildings, including the street, pedestrians and cars that drive along it. The white shape is put back. Now, the film of that window frame is projected above its surface (so we see the film of a film). The measurements are resumed. But the dimensions don’t match. The perimeter of the window frame is now smaller. So what? Between the reality of the window and its filmed reproduction something’s wrong?

In the third one, City Slivers (Gordon Matta-Clark, 1976), black vertical mattes placed in front of the anamorphic lens of the camera limits the view on New York’s architectural structures. Throughout the film this expedient declines the view, obstructs the view, isolates details, even acts more in depth, performing as a cinematic “trick”, creating a “matte-against matte” effect, combining two different sequences in a single shot : a split-screen effect. Eventually, the two mattes will close on the frame as if they were a kind of curtain.

The three films seem interested in testing the limits of the frame, perturbing it, dissecting it, measuring it. But the picture that emerges is also altered for another reason. What we see on are not the films, but their “textual quotation”, a sort of “memorandum” of the film itself. Kenneth Goldsmith himself explains it, in a passage from his book, Duchamp is my Lawyer. The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb (Columbia University Press, 2020). In the chapter devoted to Avant-garde cinema and internet, he meditates on his digital archive and reports a reflection by Andrew Lamper, archivist at the Anthology Film Archive in New York: «“In terms of quality, UbuWeb’s films are truly a disaster, but Lampert says that it’s these inaccuracies that prevent UbuWeb from ever being mistaken for a proper film-distribution service: «If you want to see the real thing, go to Anthology or MoMA or the Pompidou, but don’t expect truth from online versions—expect approximations or remixes».”». The films that you can see inside the “frame” of are just a reminder of the real film. An observation by Michele Canosa clarifies this passage well (see “The art of editing films: intentions”, in G. Bursi, S. Venturini, Quel che brucia (non) renga. What Burns (never) returns. Lost and Found Films, Campanotto, Udine, 2009, p.29): «So, if we put a film on a DVD or other medium, we are able to reproduce the figurative aspect of the film, but not the photographic values (definition, contrast, density, grain – the texture of the image). The “color” of the film is not reproduced. The format of the frame (the aspect ratio), the proportions of the printing plate, the stability of the image, and many other aspects of the original work of art will be different. Putting a film onto some other medium than film is simply a representation of that work of art (of one of its dimensions). Or to be more precise, it reduces the work to a (figurative) text, which, as a text, is used to testify the work of art. In this respect, it’s even less than a representation, it’s a reminder (memento, memorandum, pense-bête)».

The charm of these visual reminders, the euphoric perversion that derives from them, is also given by the fact that they are transfers of films migrated from one format to another. They are films projected, re-filmed into video and transferred to digital files (Frame – City Slivers). They are films projected, re-filmed on film, transferred to video and then digitally (nostalgia). In the latter you can hear the noise of the projector while grinds the filmstrip. The Frame file lacks the first six minutes of the film, and a strange stroboscopic effect envelops it (absent in the original). You can see on the bottom of the digital frame, of the “framing”, the strip of the VHS tape that runs horizontally. Sometimes the picture jumps, same for the definition, exhibiting those kind of folds typical of the VHS bad conditions.
Given these conditions, the action of measuring the screen inch by inch sounds in Frame rather silly. A kind of humor peeps out, and accompanies the vision.

Before concluding, a page from Goldsmith’s book seems paradoxically to bring us back to Casanova and Schefer. Even if it’s about Andy Warhol that Goldsmith refers to: «“Andy Warhol used to say that the action of his static movies, such as Empire (1964) and Sleep (1963), was not to be found on the screen but in the theater. He claimed that because so little was happening on the screen that the real action was in the audience—the comings and goings, talking, falling asleep, fighting, drug use, and sometimes sex. For him, the cinema was a performative space, with the images on-screen as a prompt or backdrop against which these performances could unfold, transforming the normally passive space of cinema into a relational one».

Lampert feels similarly that: «Cinema is not a medium. It’s an experience, a collective experience, with people. By hearing them breathe next to me, I’m sharing that experience, I’m experiencing cinema. The cinematic experience is defined by a projector behind you projecting above your heads, onto a surface in front of you. Usually the room is dark, the walls are black, and the screen is white. But the room itself is comprised of viewers, and we’re experiencing things simultaneously. I think it’s that simultaneous viewing that defines cinema because we could all watch the exact same content on our phones, at home, anywhere else, talk about it the next day at the water cooler, but cinema is about the experience of all of us watching at the same time in the same space. That’s especially true if there’s a mistake. For me cinema is alive when there’s a focus problem, when the sound drops out, when a splice breaks, and we have to wait five minutes together in the dark while they get the projector running again. I don’t want a fluid experience. This is cinema.”»

He’s probably right.