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Olivier Brossard

The Last Clean Shirt

a film by Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara

This piece is 9,000 words or about twenty printed pages long.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

Where they’ve come from. We’re not even up to 23rd Street yet. Sings at little song in middle. ‘I hate driving.’

— Frank O’Hara, ‘The Sentimental Units,’
Collected Poems, 467.


In 1964, American painter and film maker Alfred Leslie and poet Frank O’Hara completed the movie The Last Clean Shirt. It was first shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1964 and later that year at Lincoln Center in New York, causing an uproar among the audience. The movie shows two characters, a black man and a white woman, driving around Manhattan in a convertible car. The Last Clean Shirt is a true collaboration between a film maker and a poet since Frank O’Hara wrote the subtitles to the dialogue or rather the monologue: the woman is indeed the only character who speaks and she furthermore expresses herself in Finnish gibberish, which demanded that subtitles be added.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

The notion of territory, of American territory, is particularly relevant to see, read or listen to The Last Clean Shirt. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a territory is ‘the extent of the land belonging to or under the jurisdiction of a ruler or State.’ It can also be ‘an area defended by an animal or group of animals against others of the same species or an area defended by a team or player in a game.’ Finally, a territory is ‘a tract of land, a district of undefined boundaries; a region’ and ‘an area of knowledge, a sphere of thought or action, a province.’
      The film engages some of these notions such as the idea that a territory has to be fought for, or claimed, that it is an area defined by rules and norms. That such rules and norms can be redefined as in a game. To the territory of the city (Manhattan) The Last Clean Shirt juxtaposes more formal and virtual territories: the spaces that matter in the film are more literary and artistic than physical.
      The idea of bifurcation, of swerving is at the heart of the film. Although the car itself only makes three turns all in all (including a U-turn), the turning, swerving and skidding takes place elsewhere: such is the uncharted territory that Leslie and O’Hara invite us to explore. For us spectators sitting at the back of the car, the question is: when is it that we are getting off the road?
      One can read or see The Last Clean Shirt as a parodic road movie and one might wonder if we are not driving on a side street instead of on the main street. If we accept the ride we are offered, we soon veer off and hit unknown roads towards metaphorical and virtual territories.
      The Last Clean Shirt was even more avant-garde or visionary than critics were able to see at the time: it is not merely a film but a new form of work of art, a new literary object, in the wake of the simultaneous poem (Blaise Cendrars). One might then wonder how the film goes beyond simultaneity in the mapping of a new artistic space created between images and words.
      Lastly, 30 years before the advent of the internet, one might contend that The Last Clean Shirt had a stab at creating a form of hypertextual or ‘intermedia’ [Note 1] space.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

‘Use alternate route’: such could be the road sign posted by Alfred Leslie at the beginning of the movie. Indeed the car does not seem to go anywhere although we see it moving. The road trip begins on Astor Place in Manhattan: the car goes one block south, makes a U turn at the level of 6th Street (it goes around Cooper Union) goes up Third Avenue, stays on Third Avenue until it hits 34th Street, turns left on 34th Street until it hits Park Avenue, makes a right and parks on 34th Street and Park in front of Macy’s department store. The film repeats this scene three times. In the first part of the triptych, we can hear the woman talk to the driver in Finnish gibberish. As one does not understand a word, one is forced to focus on the purely eventless trip: nothing ever diverts our attention from the monotony of the road. The second part of the film has us go back to Astor Place and start again, but this time we get the subtitles which tell us what the woman is saying. The third part is yet another return to Astor Place, the subtitles now expressing the silent driver’s thoughts. There is no action in the movie besides the gesticulations and verbal outpouring of the woman sitting in the car.
      The Last Clean Shirt is a parodic road movie in the sense that the car is the defining frame of the screen: the camera is on the back seat and we as spectators are given a ride three consecutive times. A road movie usually promises to be rewarding for one who wants entertainment: the narrative line is geared towards a climactic end and all along the road numerous events are supposed to take place. The problem here is that there is no road and therefore no road hitting per se ever takes place: we only have to make do with Third Avenue, which is a street in an urban environment.
      Besides, it seems that the urban environment of Manhattan is totally blurred out of vision. We cannot make anything out and sadly have to focus on our two traveling companions. The other problem is that one is not allowed to leave the car since the camera is set in the back seat and does not move. The windshield and the back of the front seats frame the screen both in a vertical and horizontal manner: the spectator is trapped, which makes for a strange feeling of claustrophobia. The irony of the situation is that the camera only moves once, towards the end of each section of the film, when the car reaches a traffic light and we are shown a WALK sign. ‘WALK’: this is precisely what we cannot do as spectators as we are prisoners of this vehicle which moves at a regular, nondescript speed.
      We are definitely taken for a ride: after driving around three times we are entitled to wonder if we are not on the wrong street/ avenue after all. One should remember that one of Frank O’Hara’s great poems is ‘Second Avenue’ which runs parallel to Third Avenue. Going up Third Avenue instead of going down Second Avenue might be a hint that Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara have indeed taken us in. This also hints at the etymology of ‘parody,’ which means parallel discourse. Third Avenue runs parallel to ‘Second Avenue’ and the subtitles of the film echo the long poem that Frank O’Hara wrote in 1953 [Note 2] . Section 3 of the poem reads:

Blue negroes on the verge of a true foreignness
escape nevertheless the chromaticism of occidental death
by traffic, oh children bereaved of their doped carts
and priests with lips like mutton in their bedrooms at dawn!
and falling into a sea of asphalt abuse which is precisely life
in these provinces printed everywhere with the flag ‘Nobody’...[Note 3]

One may wonder if both characters, the black man and the white woman, are not on the verge of a true foreignness, and yet they do escape ‘the chromaticism of occidental death’ since the movie is in black and white. The Last Clean Shirt as parodic movie may be trying to warn us against the ‘sea of asphalt abuse which is precisely life’ and after all we may be taken for a ride for our own good.
      A parody in a way provides a critical discourse which allows one to step back and reflect. Not only does the film parody the road movie genre but it also mimics moral fables, it undermines existential discourse and philosophical grandiloquence which was the run of the literary mill in the 50s and 60s. The subtitles undermine the ideas of responsibility, freedom, guilt:

You don’t say
that the victim is responsible

*

for a concentration camp
or a Mack truck [Note 4]

If ‘it’s not in us it’s / in the situation’ as the subtitles say, the individual seems to have limited leeway, independence or freedom.
      Such notions as responsibility and guilt are actually blown apart by the irrelevance of comparisons and juxtapositions. The subtitles go against the grain of the theater of the absurd, one could even contend that they mimic Beckett’s theater and his characters’ melancholy. The subtitles go against the grain of any straightforward lamenting over the loss of meaning of the world. The woman says:

I really am upset about things

*
I mean it’s a rotten life

*

Everything that goes on around you
is ridiculous

The ambiguous nature of the subtitles is that they both stage the ridiculous aspects of life and the ridiculous nature of ponderous statements about life. Time plays an important part in the movie: at the very beginning the driver tapes a clock onto the dashboard. At the beginning of section 3, the subtitles read:

I could do this...

*

I could do this a lot easier
with CHEWING gum.

Such is Frank O’Hara and Alfred Leslie’s way of trying to raise awareness about such issues without yielding to self-indulgent whining [Note 5] : parody and humor come to the rescue. The spectator is relieved to see that the movie might become more eventful at the beginning of section 2 when the following subtitle appears on the screen:

‘and one Sunday I will be shot’

But one’s hopes are shattered when the following subtitle appears:

‘brushing my teeth.’

Comic relief comes to the rescue of uneventfulness, the shooting usually applied to film noir or to western movies is here applied to everyday life:

listen, I want you
to promise me something,

*

If I ever get as fat as Eunice,
shoot me,

*

Don’t ask me about it.
Just shoot.

We are therefore invited to take an alternate route. We had been warned, though, at the very beginning of the movie by the black screen and the white label saying EDU. The soundtrack to this preliminary image was a voice singing James R. Lowell’s poem ‘Once to Every Man and Nation’ followed gusts of wind, which set the tone for the rest of the movie:

Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide
In the strife of truth with falsehood
For the good or evil side
Then it is the brave man chooses.
While the coward stands aside
And the choice goes by forever

The film is therefore a parody of a foreign educational movie with a hint of a mock-heroic tone. In an interview I conducted with Alfred Leslie on February 6th , 2003, he says:

The first moment you see it, you hear a language that you may or may not get. You may nor may not realize that it’s a fake language, you may or may not understand the clues that are offered at the very opening of the film [...] All of that means to, in a Brechtian sense, to hank you in place and make sure you’re going to stay there and make a choice because a lot of the times when you get it you have to say to yourself: ‘am I going to stay or am I going to leave?’ This is a gun that’s being put to your head like the Dada poets and threatening you and saying: ‘you gotta pay attention to what’s going on at the beginning of the turmoil in the country culturally and politically’ [...] ‘You gotta pay attention,’ I mean it means something, you read those newspapers and maybe you need to understand that what’s being printed in those newspapers is not true and that you have to hold back a little bit. [Note 6]

The parodic tone of the movie therefore serves a purpose: although the film pokes fun at grandiloquence and moral ponderousness, it seeks ways to address ethical and political issues in an indirect way.
      In that perspective, one of the key subtitles is capitalized: NEVERTHELESS. It echoes Frank O’Hara’s long poem ‘Biotherm (for Bill Berkson)’ where one can read: ‘NEVERTHELESS (thank you, Aristotle).’ [Note 7] NEVERTHELESS is central in The Last Clean Shirt because it links the film as parody to the film as moral fable: in spite of all the fun Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara are having at debunking seriousness and heavy duty metaphysical ponderings, they do not shirk the issues. They just find more elegant ways to engage ethical issues. ‘The sea of asphalt abuse’ of the poem ‘Second Avenue’ is also present on Third Avenue. The irony of being in a car, not being able to leave it, driving and not going anywhere can be understood as an ironical comment on the American society of the 50s and 60s with the emerging consumer culture and car industry. The car is seen as a potential danger: ‘I think the license plate / has a bomb in it’ is one of the subtitles to the driver’s thoughts. The trajectory of the car is also socially questionable: it goes from the lower class neighborhood of the East Village to posh Midtown Manhattan, parking in front of Macy’s department store: it’s shopping time.
      However, ‘The sea of asphalt abuse’ is there, it is ‘precisely life’ and one has to acknowledge it: refusing it or lamenting over it will do no good, one has to be aware of it, one has to make do with it. The subtitle ‘I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining’ is excerpted from the end of the poem ‘Naphtha,’ [Note 8] which concludes on a final line (not included in the film): ‘but I have to smile.’ Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara are smiling at the very same time they are taking stock of the situation. It is interesting that another subtitle ‘I know so much about things, I / accept so much it’s like vomiting’ should be excerpted from ‘Spleen,’ [Note 9] another poem by Frank O’Hara. By using such lines in the same artistic space, Frank O’Hara stages the ins and outs of his own ethical grounds, he sums up the ambivalence of his outlook on life and on the society he lives in: he hovers between the refusal of excess, ‘it’s just that things get too much,’ and the necessity to accept the consumer world and live in it. The names of Hollywood stars [Note 10] Elke Sommer and Loretta Young shine on the black and white screen of The Last Clean Shirt, a reminder that the film is an alternate route that we have chosen [Note 11] : we are in a parallel black and white world where we can reflect upon our civilization.
      The tension between accepting and refusing what one can rapidly sum up as the consumer society is at the heart of the film. One could even consider that Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara’s answer to that tension is their take on boredom. The film itself could be considered as a variation on boredom: as Alfred Leslie pointed it out in the passage quoted above, the spectator soon has to make up his mind as to whether he is going to refuse the cinematic boredom he is subjected to and leave the cinema. Whereas both characters do not go anywhere, the subtitles are a display of geographic references such as Africa and China and of various references to the glittery entertainment world. The fact that subtitles can move from geographical reference to geographical reference is telling: due to space constraints on the screen, a subtitle has to be short. Its size and format is that of a fragment. This ‘excerpt format’ of subtitles perfectly fits this (travel) catalogue of a world where places are reduced to mere clichés, since one lacks the time and interest to stay in one place and explore it. The Last Clean Shirt seems to be a critical commentary of the advent of the new leisure and traveling classes of the 1950s and 1960s:

What I really would like to do
is go to Havana

*

for a weekend –

*

like Betty Grable (?).

Betty Grable is a movie star who acted in such movies as Million Dollar Legs (1939), Down Argentine Way (1940), Song of the Islands (1942) amongst other films. The latter films are set in exotic settings. The question mark in the above subtitle may be proof that Frank O’Hara was not quite sure of the actress (or the movie) he wanted to quote. There was a movie of the same period called Week-end in Havana (1941) directed by Walter Lang which starred Carmen Miranda and Alice Faye.
      Frank O’Hara and Alfred Leslie are staging this fake postcard world and underlining its cheap exoticism. The Last Clean Shirt and its subtitles bank on the economy and rapidity of clichés that they use at the same time that they subvert them: in the subtitles quoted above the emphatic tone ‘really’ contrasts with the duration of the stay ‘for a weekend’ as though going to Havana was tantamount to going to the local grocery store, a mere trifle. What Leslie and O’Hara are targeting here is the blasé conception of life such a consumer world implies.  Shortly after the scene just quoted, one can read:

I would like to think
that you were driving us

*

all through space
to some peculiar place

*

where everyone would be happy
and safe and boring,

*

boring, in a new way

*

that the century
does not know about yet.

Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara are equating the emerging consumer society with a world of planned boredom, planned in such a way that one can only wish for things: ‘I would like to think / that...’ The real thing is at several remove, we are being moved away from the center of things by a generalized packaged boredom: ‘happy and safe [...] in a new way / that the century / does not know about yet.’ Such words seem quite prophetic of the 21 st century entertainment world.
      The current craze, reality TV, may very well be an illustration of the above quotations: how life has been made into a safe, planned and packaged commodity that can be shown on television as ‘real life.’ It used to be that people resorted to fiction as a form of entertainment. Fiction could at least be subversive. It seems that nowadays people are no longer interested in fiction but in ‘safe and boring’ life, ‘boring in a new way.’ It is safe because ‘reality shows’ will only show what the media will let them show, which is what falls within acceptable limits. It may be the death of interest and of attention: as in The Last Clean Shirt where the spectator can only focus on the two people in front of him and therefore assumes a voyeuristic position, the 21st-century spectator is also hijacked into watching something that has been carefully planned although it is presented as real life, i.e. unpredictable. It does not seem far fetched to say that Frank O’Hara and Alfred Leslie had foreseen some of these elements in their film. Boredom becomes the focal point of these issues: what is boring? Can boredom wake one up? Are we kept in a state of boredom or in a state of entertained boredom? Are there several forms of boredom?
      In the interview, Alfred Leslie said that he wanted people to pay attention when the entertainment world encourages them to be passive. One cannot really say that the film is boring, the film stages boredom as a means to raise people’s awareness. The subtitle ‘boring in a new way’ can be understood in two opposite ways: boring in a way that defeats boredom and excites intelligence. Such is the kind of philosophical, almost maieutic boredom staged by The Last Clean Shirt. The other kind of boredom would be the corporate, manufactured and disguised boredom that we are served everyday by the entertainment industry. Frank O’Hara was perfectly aware of the dangers of boredom and the following analysis that he made of David Smith’s sculptures resonate with his subtitles for The Last Clean Shirt:

[David Smith’s sculptures] have no boring views: circle them as you may, they are never napping. They present a total attention and they are telling you that that is the way to be. On guard. In a sense they are benign, because they offer themselves for your pleasure. But beneath that kindness is a warning: don’t be bored, don’t be lazy, don’t be trivial and don’t be proud. The slightest loss of attention leads to death. The primary passion in these sculptures is to avert catastrophe, or to sink beneath it in a major way. So, as with the Greeks, it is a tragic art. [Note 12]

One might be fooled by the uneventfulness of the film The Last Clean Shirt. It is true that nothing goes on on the surface, although the surface here begs to be defined. Like David Smith’s sculptures, The Last Clean Shirt has no boring views if you watch the film as you would look at a painting. If you listen to the film or if you read the film, you won’t be bored and you won’t be lazy.
      One could even say that the primary passion of this film is to avert catastrophe too: better than any theorizing of the so-called ‘post-modern’ world, the film stages it and takes it apart. The question is, is it possible to avert catastrophe? Are we or the characters already dead, as the title to the film The Last Clean Shirt [Note 13] and the funerary hymn or other references to death might seem to suggest? And how can we avoid catastrophe? Alfred Leslie said ‘I wanted to make this construct in which the audience would be forewarned, and then if they didn’t, they would just enter into the musicality of language.’ The choice is ours to consider this film as a new kind of work of art.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

The Last Clean Shirt is a collaboration between someone who is primarily a painter, Alfred Leslie, and someone who was primarily a poet, Frank O’Hara [Note 14] . The film is informed by a painter’s vision: the camera is set in such a way that the car and the road end up making an almost abstract composition. Alfred Leslie manages to get a two dimensional effect out of a three-dimensional medium, cinema: The Last Clean Shirt is the staging of the taking apart and flattening of the moving image. The film betrays the concerns of the painter: lines, planes and dimensions are carefully organized on the screen and enter a field of tension. The spectator can see vertical lines: the characters, the street, the buildings, the windshield frame and the hands of the clock. Horizontal lines also come into play: the subtitles, the upper part of the seats and of the windshield and a series of small horizontal lines can be seen on different parts of the screen.
      Circularity also finds its place with the clock, the wheel and various buttons on the dashboard of the car. There seems to be no depth, no relief whatsoever on the screen. It is as though Alfred Leslie went back to the early years of cinema to show us that what we take for granted i.e. verisimilitude, lifelikeness, 3-D relief are but a construct, an illusion. Alfred Leslie seems to wink at old movies where we see characters in a plane with the sky or the scenery projected behind them on a screen for reality’s sake.
      The situation is reversed in The Last Clean Shirt: the characters are turning their backs to us and what is traditionally the backdrop in early movies here becomes the front (of the car – the road) with an equal lack of perspective. The car is therefore going forward within the movie but backwards if one considers the backdrop/front situation. Front and back are inverted. It is as though the avenue itself was a mere illusion projected on the screen – or on the windshield which becomes a second screen – to give us the illusion that we are going somewhere. Everything has been thought out to prevent the birth of perspective, the birth of a ‘ligne de fuite’: the rearview mirror does not reflect anything and the clock fastened to the dashboard becomes a visual stumbling block, a constant reminder that the main axis is the linear unfolding of time.
      The white line of the subtitles at the bottom of the screen adds to the flatness of the film: ‘This apparent aid to comprehension [...] has the effect not merely of distraction but of emphasizing the plane of the film and of the screen, insisting upon the two dimensionality.’ [Note 15] Both characters and spectators therefore remain stuck inside this immediate foreground, which is demanding on vision and perception. One may wonder if the ‘ligne de fuite,’ if the escape hatch may not be found within the subtitles themselves.
      In the interaction between images and subtitles, The Last Clean Shirt becomes a new kind of work of art, a new literary object [Note 16] in the wake of Blaise Cendrars’s ‘poème simultané,’ La Prose du Transsibérien. This almost becomes an ironical reference here since in the film the characters can hardly be said to embark on an epic. However, the epic takes place in language itself, what with the references to China, Africa, the frenzy and diversity of the quotes and the mock-moral dimension which filters through. Seeing The Last Clean Shirt as a simultaneous poem underlines the ‘generic transgression’ between language and image. To Jacques Debrot ‘generic transgression’ [Note 17] lies at the heart of the collaboration between Frank O’Hara and the painters he worked with. The Last Clean Shirt is yet another instance of this, and it even takes the interaction between language and image to an unprecedented level.
      There are several definitions of simultaneity in connection with literature and poetry. To Robert Delaunay, ‘simultanéité’ as a concept was first applied to colors on a canvas:

[Robert Delaunay’s] doctrine of ‘simultaneism’ [was] the dynamic counterpoint of otherwise dissonant colors when observed in complementarity. La Prose du Transsibérien is a simultaneous book in that the reader takes in, or is meant to take in, text and image simultaneously; the eye travels back and forth between [Sonia] Delaunay’s colored forms and Cendrar’s words[Note 18]

The Last Clean Shirt is a sum of poèmes simultanés if one takes one still and one subtitle to be one poetic unit. If you place the subtitles one above the other and add them up, you end up forming a long vertical poem that could be compared to Cendrars’s poem. Frank O’Hara knew Blaise Cendrars’ work and was inspired by it, he also quotes Sonia Delaunay in his poem ‘Naphtha.’ [Note 19] Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara’s The Last Clean Shirt carries the principle of the ‘poème simultané’ into the age of cinema, underlining and undermining the quality of the moving image in its relationship to language, beyond simultaneity. The question is how does it all move? How do subtitles and images articulate themselves in the unfolding of the film?
      During the first part of the film, the spectator is asked to watch the film without being told what it all means. In section 2, he or she watches it again with the subtitles to the woman’s speech and in section 3 with the subtitles to the man’s thoughts, in a mock-pedagogical manner. One may consider that subtitles are the main obstacle to movement in the film: they form an immediate foreground. The movement of the car along vertical lines and the movement of the eyes reading the subtitles along horizontal lines conflict: both dimensions push and pull. Reading the subtitles takes vision away from the image and allows one to leave the confines of the car. However, such a conflict between image and language seems to be ‘for the fun of it’ since one does not miss any of the ‘action’ on the screen by focusing on the subtitles: the images are one monotonous flow. The film becomes a lesson in reading, a lesson on the specificity of images and words.
      Whereas subtitles seem to be intransitive in their physicality (they do not lead vision anywhere when you look at them) they become transitive as soon as you start reading them. Similarly, whereas images seem to be transitive in their physicality as they seem to lead to the improbable end of Third Avenue, they seem intransitive if you question perspective in the film. Alfred Leslie was totally aware of the conflicting natures of language and images. Alfred Leslie commented: ‘I used his lines against the image and what I would do there is the image would be in front of me, I had all these lines piled up, I’d written them all out so that the longest line would fit on the paper that I had.’ [Note 20]
      The aim of simultaneity in a work of art was at first, according to Boccioni in his 1912 manifesto, to bring about ‘the possibility of representing successive stages of motion in linear sequence.’ [Note 21] This obviously was to be applied to painting and not to cinema. The genius of Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara is to have applied that principle to film. Film does represent successive stages of motion, film is all about representing successive stages of motion so that they all blur into motion itself: you cannot make out stage A from stage B from stage C, they are all part of movement.
      In The Last Clean Shirt however, Alfred Leslie paradoxically manages to freeze and dissect movement by repeating three times the tedious drive on Third Avenue: it is hard to isolate sequences in the film, you can sum it up by one or two stills at most, since the camera does not change and the characters barely move. Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara reinsert linear sequence and therefore discontinuity in the subtitles made up of discrete units of language. The Last Clean Shirt as a ‘poème simultané’ pits the continuity of images against the discontinuity of language and maintains this tension until the very end: motion is not where one expects to find it. Successive stages of motion are to be found and made out in language only.
      The question then raised by the movie is can one read and see at the same time? Can one see a word or can one read an image? Are shapes articulate? Or in other words, can intransitivity or immediacy become transitive and mediated? Are both dimensions exclusive of each other?
      Alfred Leslie gives us a hint towards the end of the movie, when the car reaches a traffic light. The camera moves for the first & last time to focus on the sign ‘WALK’. It is as though language had trickled into the image. By doing so however, the sign ‘WALK’ cannot be decomposed, it is no longer made of letters. ‘WALK’ becomes an image that one does not read but see and instantly recognize. Language is in that case no longer discreet [Note 22] . This absorption of language within the image marks the end of movement in the movie and a funerary hymn can be heard at the same time.
      What Alfred Leslie is showing us here is an instance of language that no longer needs to be spelled out in order to be understood. He is showing us a new kind of immediate language, which is a reflection on the presence of language in the landscape and its efficiency since one does not so much need to read as to see. This is also linked to the idea of the passivity of the viewer: whereas the spectator of The Last Clean Shirt has strained his eyes to read the subtitles for 20 minutes in order to understand what is going on, he is suddenly and immediately given an order. This could be Alfred Leslie releasing the spectators. We have been taken for a ride and we have undergone an educative process, we have been taught not to take things at face value: we are now free to walk by ourselves, we have completed our training in skepticism.
      What is insidious here is that Alfred Leslie is using illusion, i.e. language mediated by two screens, to give us an order: language is camouflaging itself as an image to urge us to take action. Once again the question here is one of choice [Note 23] : should we obey this kind of immediate language, which is that of public notices, or law and order, of publicity, of commercial language? The tension between subtitles and images is gone, language has been consumed and absorbed by images, and Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara are urging us to think about it. Language is no longer here to oppose its discrete units to the imperialistic nature and violent immediacy of images. All of The Last Clean Shirt as a work of art and literary object is geared towards this final shift of the camera. [Note 24]


The Last Clean Shirt - still

The movie maps a new artistic and textual space almost thirty years before the advent of the internet and the theorizing of hypertextuality. What is interesting in The Last Clean Shirt, if we consider it as a ‘poème simultané’ is that the page disappears to the benefit of the screen: the subtitles are not actually printed on the screen but superimposed on the moving image. The subtitles themselves do not move, they appear and disappear according to a frequency that varies in the movie. The text does not take shape in relation to a motionless page but in relation to a moving image.
      Many critical studies have focused on Frank O’Hara’s interest in film and on the relationship between his poetry and cinema either in a thematic perspective or in a more dynamic perspective. It is surprising that no such studies [Note 25] , to my knowledge, have ever analyzed let alone quoted The Last Clean Shirt as a perfect example not only of O’Hara’s fascination for the movie world but also of his involvement with cinema techniques. In his book The American Poet at the Movies, Laurence Goldstein shows how what he refers to movie poems, i.e. poems that deal with cinema as a theme and to some extent as an artistic technique, are ‘batteries of formal resistance to the fantasy bribes offered by the well-financed manipulators of desire.’ [Note 26]
      The Last Clean Shirt is the reflection of what Laurence Goldstein calls a movie-poem. One could even call it a poem-film [Note 27] but the relationship is not quite symmetrical here: one cannot really say that the Frank O’Hara text is present in the movie in the same way that the movies are present in his poems. The Last Clean Shirt is redefining the movie genre in the sense that it opens up the space of the subtitles, a well defined format, to poetry. This opening up of the subtitle format to poetry is going to alter the nature of the film: the subtitles are not here to be mere appendixes to dialogues, they are not dependent on a preexisting meaning, they create a self-sufficient space which interacts with images on an equal footing.
      Alfred Leslie commented: ‘... my idea was to create a kind of palimpsest, an overlay of language and ideas...’ [Note 28] Furthermore, Frank O’Hara played with the resources of typography and punctuation to create several layers of discourse: for instance he used italics or brackets to point at deep layers of consciousness for the driver. In section 3, we can read : ‘(He continues to think of someone else thinking)’, subtitles are going italicized and bracketed, they are saying something to the spectator, they are commenting the scene. This use of typography is a violation of the neutrality of subtitles and of their subservience to the main narrative and to the images. Because The Last Clean Shirt toys with this authorized space within the movie genre it becomes a complex artistic object. This tension between image and subtitle shows how film and poetry articulate themselves and stage their own differences as media. It is therefore important to see the film as falling between genres or between media instead of seeing it as a film with a poetic subtitle track/ soundtrack. Laurence Goldstein’s book only pays attention to the movies insofar as they are represented or included in poetry: ‘This book, then, is not another story about the triumph of the movies but about the triumph of the poet.’ [Note 29] There is no such thing as triumph of cinema or of language in The Last Clean Shirt. Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara utterly ignore these notions of poetry and film territories. They are not interested in knowing which medium is going to take over; they only stress their differences to make something new appear on the surface of the screen.
      Recent criticism on Frank O’Hara and film or art has paid more attention to the polymorphous aspect of his work, to the fact that he never shied away from whetting his language against other media. In Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara, Hazel Smith develops the notion of hyperscape which is ‘a vein-like network in which differences coalesce, only immediately to fall asunder again’ [Note 30] . The Last Clean Shirt would have been a perfect case in point for this idea of vein-line network in which differences coalesce. One could even venture as far as to talk about hypertext for the subtitles to the film. Just as the images are not a direct rendering of reality but a sequence of images (therefore extracts of images of reality), the subtitles constitute a network that refers to Frank O’Hara’s work as a whole.
      During the interview I conducted with him, Alfred Leslie told me that he had commissioned the subtitles from Frank O’Hara and that the latter wrote them for the film. As one reads them, a strange impression sets in. There is the overall feeling of discontinuity as no subtitle or group of subtitles logically connects with other subtitles. Yet there is a strange feeling that a connection of another kind exists: there is something else to which we do not have access, a backdrop against which the disrupted narrative line of The Last Clean Shirt takes a denser meaning.
      As it turns out, besides recurrent words that one finds both in the subtitles and in The Collected Poems, [Note 31] many subtitles are direct quotations of poems such as ‘Death,’ [Note 32] ‘Spleen,’ [Note 33] ‘Ode to Michael Goldberg (’s Birth and Other Births),’ [Note 34] ‘Ode on Causality,’ [Note 35] ‘Naphtha,’ [Note 36] ‘Biotherm (for Bill Berkson),’ [Note 37] ‘The Sentimental Units,’ [Note 38] and other poems so that it is possible to establish a concordance of the movie The Last Clean Shirt with The Collected Poems. It is all the more interesting as The Collected Poems did not exist as such before Frank O’Hara’s death (the book was first published in 1971).
      The Last Clean Shirt provides one with a personal anthology edited by the poet himself. Only it is a secret anthology, a mask of Frank O’Hara since one has to either remember the poems or go back to the book and read them.
      Hazel Smith writes ‘there is also a simultaneity about O’Hara’s production which works against the idea of an evolution of style, because he often moved from one type of writing to another [...] and many of the poems draw together a number of different modes of writing’ [Note 39] . Frank O’Hara takes this simultaneity to another level in The Last Clean Shirt by only giving us lines from some of his poems, a Frank O’Hara sampler, a list of hypertextual links to a would-be self-edited Frank O’Hara reader. [Note 40]
      Sarah Riggs’s book, Word Sightings: Visual Apparatus and Verbal Reality in Stevens, Bishop and O'Hara, is the latest study on the relationship between Frank O’Hara’s poetry and other media. It takes the interaction between language and image to a new level. Sarah Riggs focuses on the notions of emergence and three-dimensionality within the poems of Frank O’Hara when they engage with other forms of art such as painting or the cinema: ‘When O’Hara conflates different art forms, as we saw in “Why I Am Not a Painter” he does so not for the sake of likeness, but rather to create an effect of emergence, of what “is”, out of the tension between media.’ [Note 41]
      Sarah Riggs shows how O’Hara deals with visual realities in language, a medium in which one cannot see but only read. She nevertheless shows that there is a progression in Frank O’Hara’s cinema poems and a tendency to use certain techniques of cinema to summon the visual, to summon presence, to create a form of emergence and relief on the surface of the text: ‘In poetry (...) it is impossible to see. Thus the modern poet is in the clutches of a strange contradiction: how to display an excess of sight in a medium in which there is none at all.’
      I am not sure that such a contradiction can be solved at all. Frank O’Hara’s poems remain literary objects. However, what Sarah Riggs writes about Frank O’Hara’s embrace of what she calls ‘the technological anti aesthetic’ could be applied to The Last Clean Shirt: ‘Effects of hyperrealism that I trace in O’Hara’s poetry depend upon the foregrounding of artificial components, the reconfiguration of the poetic page as a kind of projected screen, and linguistic simulation of 3-D emergence.’ [Note 42] It may sometimes be difficult to make out this simulation in Frank O’Hara’s work but what is certain is that one can say that The Last Clean Shirt subtitles are the foregrounding of artificial components (artificial because they are not ‘natural’ to film). The film also stages the reconfiguration of the screen as a kind of projected page, and visual simulation of 2-D dimensions.
      The Last Clean Shirt is all topsy-turvy: while Frank O’Hara aims at creating relief and three-dimensionality and an effect of emergence in his poetry, the first chance he gets to collaborate on a movie with Alfred Leslie, he uses language to flatten images. In a sense it might be too easy to create relief and volume with real images. What is much more difficult - what Frank O’Hara and Alfred Leslie achieve in The Last Clean Shirt - is to show the visual flatness of language in a three dimensional environment (subtitles against background). However, the subtitles retain their discursive value and their transitivity for one who reads them. Yet, Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara manage to show us how to flatten a word, both visually and semantically, when the film stops on the sign ‘WALK.’ The screen is therefore seen as a space of endless possibilities but also of complete flattening of reality.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

An alternate title for the Leslie / O’Hara film could have been ‘Why I am not a film-maker’ to parody the title of the poem ‘Why I Am Not a Painter.’ [Note 43] In this poem, Frank O’Hara visits his friend Mike Goldberg and realizes he is working on a painting which has ‘SARDINES’ in it, the capital letters pointing at the fact that it is the word and not the image, although the word conjures up the image as well. The poet comes back on another day to find out that

The painting is
finished. ‘Where’s SARDINES?’
All that’s left is just
letters, ‘it was too much,’ Mike says.

Although the word is decomposed and broken into a few remaining letters on the canvas, as we are told, the word retains its solidity and cohesiveness in the poem, it is still SARDINES, we read it and we see it. In the movie, we read and see the subtitles. However, the word WALK that is on the luminous sign can only be seen: although it has not lost any letters (contrary to Sardines in Mike Goldberg’s painting), the word WALK has been flattened and de-realized as it is no longer at the foreground with the subtitles: it is placed at two removes, two screens away.
      In the last part of the poem, we read:

I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life.

It is not so much what the poem is about that matters – the ‘aboutness’ of it can actually never be fathomed – it is all about words, of which there are never enough.

Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Alfred Leslie titled his movie The Last Clean Shirt and although there are connections with death and dying, no shirt is ever mentioned in the subtitles. Significantly, when the song ‘The Last Clean Shirt’ is played at the very end of the movie, the voice of the subtitle writer/ poet can be heard/ read right before the sign ‘WALK’ is shown one last time; the subtitle says: ‘I HATE THAT SONG! / I told Leslie not to / use it in the picture!’
      Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara’s The Last Clean Shirt was in keeping with a small pamphlet, ‘Intermedia,’ published in 1966 by writer, artist and publisher Dick Higgins. Dick Higgins stresses the political nature of the separation of the arts. The beginning of his essay could be a comment on The Last Clean Shirt which he may have seen:

Much of the best work being produced today seems to fall between media. This is no accident. The concept of the separation between media rose in the Renaissance. The idea that a painting is made of paint on a canvas or that a sculpture should not be painted seems characteristic of the kind of social thought — categorizing and dividing society into nobility with its various subdivisions, untitled gentry, artisans, serfs and landless workers — which we call the feudal conception of the Great Chain of Being. [...] However, the social problems that characterize our time, as opposed to the political ones, no longer allow a compartmentalized approach. We are approaching the dawn of a classless society, to which separation into rigid categories is absolutely irrelevant.[Note 44]

The Last Clean Shirt as a film could be considered as a manifesto against separateness, against separations of any kind. In the first section of the movie, the subtitles read:

I was thinking
about India just now...

*

I think they should build
a Great Wall like China.

*

And then the Chinese
could build another one –

*

maybe even bigger
if they’re feeling so ambitious

*

It would keep everybody busy.

*

And the Africans
can go on building dams.

Walling off, fencing off is here seen as an activity in itself, devoid of any other finality than that of separating. We are not told what is separated, we should just be happy to know that separations are on the rise. This does not mean that Alfred Leslie or Frank O’Hara would have gone for the Benetton-like borderless world that is being marketed today. This world — our world — where commercial discourse celebrates difference by reducing the world to a fashion catalogue of clichés and of types, therefore turning the so-called diversity of the world into an easily recognizable and classifiable product, is to some extent the world that Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara foresee and undermine in the film.
      Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara take the problem to an abstract and philosophical level by using the subtitle ‘It is the nature of us all to want to be unconnected’ as a refrain that runs through The Last Clean Shirt. Fighting against fragmentation is high on the priority list as the reference to Humpty Dumpty reminds us:

It’s the nature of us all
to want to be unconnected...

*

to want to be unconnected...

*

And you should pull us all together

*

Like Humpty Dumpty

*

or something.

Linking, attaching seem to be of the essence in the film. Such may be the answer, the new therapy:

If you’re going to have one of
Those horrible attacks of guilt

*

[...]

you may as well
be able to attach it to something

*

like your mother
or World War Two.

Establishing connections to, bridging the gaps, putting things back together again is therefore seen in the light of parody, what with the reference to ‘Humpty Dumpty / or something’ or the ridiculous juxtaposition of one’s mother and World War Two. The repetition of the refrain ‘It’s the nature of us all to want to be unconnected’ may also be parodic of post World War II works of art or films aiming at showing the loss of unity of man after the traumatic experience of the war. This ‘unconnectedness’ that is constantly referred to is paradoxically a state which is desired and not attained: ‘to want to be unconnected.’ We may at any moment be misled by the strange phrasing of the refrain which banks on the cliché of the condition of mankind after World War II. If this movie is against separateness, it does not advocate any form of unity whatsoever, it begs us to reflect on the nature of the link or connection we want to establish. Or not establish. We are given the choice as spectators.
      The Last Clean Shirt is a film about choice, a do-it-yourself movie: it is a lesson in the meaning of alternative. One of the line which is often repeated in the film ‘I have the other idea about guilt’ becomes in the very last section ‘You have the other idea about guilt’. As spectators we come to have the other idea about guilt without having been told what the main one is, or what guilt in itself is. In the end, what may be important in the film The Last Clean Shirt is to always try and have the other idea (about all and everything).
      The Last Clean Shirt stages this endless tension between accepting the world as it is and wanting to reform it or at least to step back and reflect upon it. The problem of the main/alternate route is that one wonders how one can get out of it, as the following subtitles show: ‘outings / OUTINGS / endless outings.’ Can we get out of it all? ‘Endless outings [Note 45] ’ suggest that this may very well be a nightmarish situation, that one can never really be out (of it all), that one has to live with this tension and cope with it all along. We may be like the bum of the subtitles, constantly ‘washing the window for the light,’ and trying to see both the forest and the tree. There seems to be a slightly melancholic undertone at the end of the film, as though a subdued form of anxiety was taking over the driver’s mind via the subtitles.

my sexy zoo with the albatross
making out with the kangaroo.

*

The kangaroo,

*

poor dead kangaroo,

*

how is the kangaroo?

*

How is the poor dead kangaroo?

In the rather joyous making out of both animals, the Baudelaire of the ‘Albatross’ meets the Frank O’Hara of ‘Today.’ If we read the latter poem however, we see that it may not be as joyous as it may seem:

Oh! Kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas:
You really are beautiful! Pearls,
harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! All
the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise!
These things are with us every day
even on beach heads and biers. They
do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.[Note 46]

However, it seems here that the kangaroo is more in the bier than on the beach head as his death is considered, as though Baudelaire’s albatross was turning itself into Frank O’Hara’s kangaroo. It may be the capacity of the poet to deal with this world of objects and items which is at stake here, it may be the capacity of the poet to ‘organize [his] sexy zoo’ that he comes to doubt.

It’s my zoo
and I have wonderful plans for it.

*

I just hope...

*

... I just hope the rain won’t...

*

(I just hope the rain won’t.)

*

I just hope the rain won’t
wash it all away

*

and we end up with nothing.

What are we going to be left with? What are we going to have at the end of the day is the question that the poet seems to be asking. Is this world of objects going to last us? Neither Alfred Leslie nor Frank O’Hara answers the question. The answer may lie in art, in the object that we are given to see and read. Art is the one activity which utterly ignores those very limits and separations that have been staged in the film and its subtitles. Art is a gesture:

you’re okay I like you

*

but you’re okay
I like you

*

I LIKE YOU

These reassuring subtitles at the very end of the film remind one of Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘A True Account of Talking to the Sun at Fire Island’ in which the sun first chides the poet for not waking up to greet him only to comfort him afterwards:

Frankly, I wanted to tell you
I like your poetry. I see a lot
on my rounds and you’re okay. You may
not be the greatest thing on earth, but
you’re different. [Note 47]

Always be different (and not indifferent) to oneself and the world may be what Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara tried to tell us. Always the other idea.


The Last Clean Shirt - still

Notes

[Note 1] The term ‘intermedia’ is here borrowed from Dick Higgins’s essay ‘Synesthesia & Intersenses : Intermedia’ originally published in Something Else Newsletter 1, No. 1 (Something Else Press, 1966). It has been reprinted as a chapter in Dick Higgins, Horizons, the Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984). In the essay, Dick Higgins writes that he borrowed the word ‘Intermedia’ from Coleridge.

[Note 2] The poem and the subtitles have many words in common such as ‘zoo,’ ‘albatross,’ ‘butter,’ ‘ice’ etc.

[Note 3] Frank O’Hara. The Collected Poems of Frank O'Hara. Ed. Donald M. Allen. New York: Knopf, 1971 [Berkeley and Los Angeles : University of California Press, 1995 (revised edition)]. 141. Subsequent references to The Collected Poems will be indicated by the abbreviation CP.

[Note 4] The ‘*’ symbol indicates that subtitles are not shown on the same screen/image.

[Note 5] In an interview with Edward Lucie Smith, Frank O’Hara comments on Robert Lowell’s poetry: ‘I think Lowell has [...] a confessional manner which [lets him] get away with things that are really just plain bad but you’re supposed to be interested because he’s supposed to be so upset’.
Frank O’Hara.Standing Still And Walking in New York. Ed. Donald M. Allen. Bolinas, Cal.: Grey Fox Press, 1975. 13.

[Note 6] Interview with Alfred Leslie, New York, February 6th, 2003.

[Note 7] CP 436.

[Note 8] CP 338.

[Note 9] CP 187.

[Note 10] Quoting the names of actresses came to be seen as a trademark of Frank O’Hara’s later work.

[Note 11] The name of John Mekas ‘John Mekas where are you / I’m worried’ is also a reference to cinema. John Mekas was a film critic and a film maker converted to avant-garde cinema by Alfred Leslie’s film Pull My Daisy. John Mekas went on to create the Anthology Film Archive.

[Note 12] Frank O’Hara. What's with Modern Art? Ed. Bill Berkson. Austin : Mike & Dale's Press, 1999. 27. Italics mine.

[Note 13] The last clean shirt is the shirt that a deceased person is dressed in when buried.

[Note 14] By ‘primarily’ I mean here that the bulk of the artistic production of Alfred Leslie is paintings and the bulk of O’Hara’s production is poetry.  

[Note 15] Philip French. ‘Pop Cinema ?’ Encounter Magazine, 1964, 55.

[Note 16] Philip French in his 1964 article on The Last Clean Shirt had already noted that ‘The sub-titles become part of the film, turning it into a more aesthetic object’ (56) without bringing any precision as to the nature of this object.

[Note 17] Jacques Debrot. ‘Present, The Scene of My Selves, The Occasion of These Ruses: Frank O’Hara’s Collaborations with Grace Hartigan, Larry Rivers and Jasper Johns,’ ‘Special Project : Frank O’Hara.’ Arshile, a Magazine of the Arts 11 (1999): 64–81.

[Note 18] Steve Clay and Jerome Rothenberg. The Book of the Book. New York: Granary Books, 2000. 163.

[Note 19] ‘Ah Jean Dubuffet / when you think of him / doing his military service in the Eiffel Tower / as a meteorologist / in 1922 / you know how wonderful the 20th Century / can be / and the gaited Iroquois on the girders / fierce and unflinching-footed / nude as they should be / slightly empty / like a Sonia Delaunay’. CP 337.

[Note 20] Interview with Alfred Leslie, New York, February 6th , 2003. Italics mine.

[Note 21] Steve Clay and Jerome Rothenberg. The Book of the Book, New York: Granary Books, 2000. 163.

[Note 22] It is interesting that the sign should be at the center of the picture and not at the bottom like the subtitles, and what’s more, within yet another screen.

[Note 23] The image where the WALK sign is shown is a crossroads: we do not have to walk and to obey, we have other alternatives.

[Note 24] The scene with the ‘WALK’ sign may be the revenge of the image on language, on the subtitles: they have indeed violated the images of the film by the arbitrariness of the words and their absurd meanings. Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara have staged the death of the image by language: subtitles are usually supposed to help one understand a scene, to help with the meaning of a scene.

[Note 25] Except Russell Ferguson’s book, In Memory of My Feelings: Frank O'Hara and American Art, Los Angeles, Berkeley & London: The Museum of Contemporary Art/University of California Press, 1999. Russell Ferguson writes an interesting paragraph on The Last Clean Shirt.

[Note 26] Laurence Goldstein. The American Poet at the Movies: A Critical History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. 15.

[Note 27] French poet Pierre Alféri makes such poem-films which fall between cinema and literature.

[Note 28] Interview with Alfred Leslie.

[Note 29] Goldstein 15.

[Note 30] Hazel Smith. Hyperscapes in the Poetry of Frank O’Hara. Liverpool : Liverpool University Press, 2000. 12.

[Note 31] The ‘zoo’ mentioned in the subtitles can be found several times in the poem ‘Second Avenue,’ CP 139. The ‘kangaroo’ of the end of the film harks back to the early poem ‘Today,’ CP 15. The repetition of India can be a hint at the poem ‘Vincent and I Inaugurate a Movie Theatre’: ‘Allen and Peter, why are you going away / our country’s black and white past spread out / before us is no time to spread over India,’ CP 399. ‘Yak’ can be found in several poems of O’Hara’s including ‘Yesterday Down at the Canal,’ CP 429. More correspondences can be found between the subtitles and the poems.

[Note 32] ‘is that me who accepts betrayal / in the abstract as if it were insight ?’ CP 187.

[Note 33] ‘I know so much / about things, I accept / so much, it’s like / vomiting [...].’ CP 187.

[Note 34] ‘I am assuming that everything is all right and difficult.’ CP 297.

[Note 35] ‘the rock is least living of the forms man has fucked.’ CP 302.

[Note 36] ‘I am ashamed of my century / for being so entertaining / but I have to smile.’ CP 338.

[Note 37] ‘NEVERTHELESS (thank you, Aristotle).’ CP 437.

[Note 38] ‘Units’ 1, 3, 7 and 9 are used as subtitles in the movie. CP 467.

[Note 39] Smith 48–9.

[Note 40] There are numerous metaphors of attaching, of linking in the subtitles to The Last Clean Shirt.

[Note 41] Sarah Riggs. Word Sightings: Visual Apparatus and Verbal Reality in Stevens, Bishop and O'Hara. London; New York: Routledge, 2002. 81.

[Note 42] Riggs 79.

[Note 43] CP 261. There are echoes of the poem ‘Why I am not a painter’in The Last Clean Shirt. The word orange which is the color mentioned in the poem is quoted in the subtitles.

[Note 44] Dick Higgins. Horizons, the Poetics and Theory of the Intermedia. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1984. The entirety of the essay may be found on the internet at the following address: http://www.ubu.com/papers/higgins_intermedia.html.

[Note 45] Outing here also has the double meaning of coming out, publicly ‘confessing’ one’s homosexuality.

[Note 46] CP 15.

[Note 47] CP 306.



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