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.
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,’
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 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.’
‘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.
Blue negroes on the verge of a true foreignness
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.
You don’t say
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.
I really am upset about things
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...
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
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
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.
What I really would like to do
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.
I would like to think
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.
[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.
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.
[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?
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.
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
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.
I write a line
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
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!’
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
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.
It’s the nature of us all
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
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.
my sexy zoo with the albatross
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:
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
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
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
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.
[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’.
[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.
August 2003 | Jacket 23