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.'
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'* space.
[Note * 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.]