Tuesday 3 January 2017

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

Director: Tom Schiller
Writers: Tom Schiller
Stars: Zach Galligan, Apollonia van Ravenstein, Lauren Tom, Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Anita Ellis, Eddie Fisher, Sam Jaffe, Bill Murray, Paul Rogers and Mort Sahl

Over the years, Apocalypse Later became a place for me to review the sort of films that most people don’t. I figure that there are a multitude of sites that serve as guides to what’s worth watching at the multiplex, so folk don’t need me for that purpose. Instead, I hope I serve more as a means of discovery, to highlight films that you may not know exist or even believe exist, subjects that may have passed you by and filmmakers, on both sides of the camera, who deserve their turn in the spotlight. Nothing Lasts Forever falls into every single one of those categories. It was made by a man, Tom Schiller, who missed the film career he deserved. It starred a variety of actors, some big at the time and others whose heydays had passed or had yet to arrive. It was a major studio film, made as recently as 1982, that was shot in a 4:3 aspect ratio, predominantly in black and white and with mono sound. It has never been released theatrically, let alone on home video, though it has screened occasionally at festivals, retrospectives and on TV.

The lead is Zach Galligan, a high school student in 1982 who actually earned class credit for making this picture. His career at that point was this film and an hour-long educational piece screened on ABC Afterschool Specials about gonorrhea. Two years later, he’d appear on many walls belonging to teenage girls as the lead in Gremlins, his first released picture, before going back to college. He appeared on a few television shows during that time, but returned to theatre screens with Waxwork in 1988. He’s done good work in his time, but this is early on and he was cast to seem lost, not least because of who he was tasked to act with. His leading ladies were as inexperienced as him: a Dutch actress with the glorious name of Apollonia van Ravenstein, had a single film behind her, Seraphita’s Diary, though it was a one-woman feature; and Lauren Tom, who was nobody at the time but is now well known as an actress and voice actress. However, most of the rest of the cast were names before the leads were even born.

The reason they all joined the film is surely the promise that came along with writer/director, Tom Schiller. At this time, he was a gag writer for Saturday Night Live, a job that won him three Primetime Emmys and which gave him access to a wide variety of great talent. Lorne Michaels, another Saturday Night Live writer (with fourteen Primetime Emmys) was willing to produce the movie and he had a development deal at MGM. For whatever reason, the studio ignored the production, so Schiller found that he was able to ‘make a personal film with a studio crew’. Three prominent Saturday Night Live regulars agreed to roles: Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and John Belushi. Sadly, the latter died in March 1982, a mere six weeks before production began in April, and Galligan explained to the Little White Lies website that the shoot felt like a funeral rather than a party. Murray especially was clearly affected by his friend’s death and wasn’t the easiest person to get along with during the shoot.

The picture would feel like an old one, even if it wasn’t shot to appear that way, with considerable use of footage from older films, as the feel matches. Galligan is Adam Beckett, who starts out on the stage at Carnegie Hall playing Chopin. He’s a temperamental pianist, we see, because he rushes off stage in tears after playing his last note. His support team of old faces crowd around him and urge him to return to play his encore. But, as he stumbles, the audience realise that he’s seated in front of a player piano and they rush the stage to wrap him in the paper the device uses to play. He’s a fraud and, next thing we know, he’s on a train in Europe, being asked for his tickets in French. A Swedish architect talks to him about dreams, suggesting that, while he’ll get everything he wants in his lifetime, he won’t get it in the way that he wants. And, as we head into newsreel footage to ground the story, this feels like a Frank Capra movie that plans to run us through an emotional story with an uplifting ending. Capra-corn, they called it.
That feeling never quite goes away, but the newsreels change things notably. Los Angeles has been destroyed in an earthquake. A hundred day strike has crippled New York; the Port Authority is now in charge and there are extra checks for Adam as he returns to his aunt and uncle’s place in Manhattan. What does he do, they ask? He wants to be an artist, he says. Well, he’ll need to visit the Port Authority Artists Testing Center, they reply, within the next couple of days, and, if he can’t prove that he’s an artist of worth, they’ll kick him out of Manhattan. ‘It’s getting to be like Nazi Germany,’ says one relative, and Germany is not the only reason that we conjure up Metropolis. As the film runs on and Adam’s kindness to local tramps leads him to a subterranean world ruled over by Father Knickerbocker, Metropolis, with its dystopian world of those above who have and those below who don’t, becomes more and more applicable as a comparison. The leading lady’s name is Eloy, surely a nod to a similar concept in The Time Machine.

From what we’re told, Nothing Lasts Forever screened once to a test audience, in Seattle, and that didn’t go well. It’s easy to see why, because it’s hard to figure out exactly what this film is doing. It looks like an uplifting throwback to the forties but it’s phrased as a dystopian science fiction film, utterly unlike the sci-fi movies that were doing well in the early eighties. The Empire Strikes Back this emphatically isn’t. And then it turns into an art film, both in style and content. Capra’s films often helped characters become who they could, and probably should, have been all along; Schiller channels this approach into a search for artistic identity with Adam struggling against trends, gimmicks and the sort of Kafka-esque lunacy that Terry Gilliam would master in Brazil. When he checks in to be tested at the Port Authority, they throw him into a cubicle and give him three minutes to draw a nude woman from life, continually interrupting him as if to deliberately mess with his artistic focus.
It’s notable that Adam rarely discovers anything himself; he’s shown everything by other people. Most obviously, Mara Hofmeier, who works with him watching cars inside the Holland Tunnel and becomes his lover and guide, takes him to a wild variety of wild art performances. She’s a dadaist by nature (he has to look it up), so we watch a topless German muscleman walking mechanically on a treadmill while counting to a million and motionless guitar strummers playing noise art. Their favourite bar plays what feels like a remix of the old Doctor Who theme tune while screening Un Chien Andalou on monitors. The epitome of this surreality comes when she interrupts her orgasm because the miniature TV in her apartment is showing the Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin. No wonder Adam is confused. But others are guiding him too and soon he’ll catch a bus to the moon. Yes, you heard that right and, if we have a villain of the piece, it’s surely Ted Breughel, the steward on this bus, played by Bill Murray.

Schiller clearly created this film out of different eras of cinematic art. It looks like a thirties or forties movie, but it’s riddled with scenes from silent pictures and cast with names from the fifties. Now it leaps into exotica territory, taking it into the sixties. The trip to the moon is nothing like the one we saw from Georges Méliès or even Flash Gordon; it’s a regular city bus (on the outside) but an Alpha Cruiser on the inside, complete with its own lounge bar with Eddie Fisher singing and a Galaxy deck where they can serve dinner. How about a Lunartini, folks? While the style is already late fifties/early sixties, native girls of the Moon underline that, welcoming passengers with a hula dance. The message is all seventies consumerism and eighties conspiracy theory, though, making this a second cousin to They Live, whose aliens could well be running the Moon-o-Rama Carousel of Consumer Values in the Copernicus Consumer Zone, located in the Sea of Tranquillity, just down from the kitschy Apollo exhibit.
Oh, and if you hadn’t figured it out, this is a romance, between two people from different worlds who have never met but whose homes include pictures of the other that were there when they moved in. It’s easy to say that this is schizophrenic, but it’s wildly so and the result is as much of an experience as it is a motion picture. It’s like a trip through the previous sixty years of cinema in some sort of mash-up. It’s a little like Amazon Women on the Moon, but if that had an overarching story to tie all the skits together, and a little like the Firesign Theatre’s J-Men Forever, which re-dubbed unrelated old Republic serials with a new storyline. What’s left is the abiding question of why, and it all comes down to a quest for artistic identity. It’s not hard to see Adam Beckett’s quest representing Tom Schiller’s own quest. Sadly for him, the picture was suppressed by its studio, even when it was accepted twice to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. MGM said no and that was that, for this and, it seems, for Schiller’s big screen career.

Most critics who have suggested that Nothing Lasts Forever was ahead of its time, like Richard Brody of The New Yorker, cite modern filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Guy Maddin and the Coen Brothers as following in Schiller’s cult footsteps. I can’t argue with those three choices, but another picture that sprang to mind while I was watching this was The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, which was a braindump of everything that had influenced Rob Zombie to be a filmmaker. I got the impression here that Schiller was not only creating new art, he was also dumping out of his brain everything that had influenced him. I wonder if some of the people he got to appear in the film, as much as period props as actors, were part of that, people who he had grown up watching or listening to. I knew quite a few but I’m at least a decade younger and hadn’t become aware of all of them. To me, this has value in this cast even beyond what it does with story and ideas, because of the almost historical placement of how they’re put to use.
For instance, Adam’s aunt is Anita Ellis, a singer who provided the voice for Rita Hayworth’s performance of Put the Blame on Mame in Gilda, and his uncle is Mort Sahl, a pioneering comedian: the first entertainer to appear on the cover of Time magazine, the first to record a stand-up comedy album and the first host of the Grammy Awards. These characters are named Aunt Anita and Uncle Mort, as if to deliberately blur the lines between fiction and reality. Father Knickerbocker is portrayed by a charismatic Sam Jaffe, in a role that could be seen as Prof. Barnhardt in an alternate version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, where Klaatu failed and it was up to him to find peace in the world. The versatile Imogene Coca, a fifties TV star opposite Sid Caesar, tells secrets to Adam, and her husband is here too. That’s King Donovan, veteran of sci-fi flicks like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Magnetic Monster. There’s even a very brief appearance by Lawrence Tierney, in which he smiles like a Frank Capra Santa.

These are actors and entertainers towards the end of their careers; in the case of King Donovan, he was returning to the screen a couple of decades after his previous picture, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. And, while they all seem to throw themselves into their parts, we can’t help but wonder if they were wondering why they were in a picture like this. Eddie Fisher, playing himself, gives a voice to this, when he asks a steward, ‘How the hell did I wind up singing on a bus to the moon?’ Of course, with this being a highly multi-generational cast, others were just starting out their careers. Most obviously, there’s Lauren Tom, as the moon girl Adam is sent to fall in love with. At this point, she’d just done a couple of episodes of The Facts of Life, but she kept busy till the mid-nineties when she fell into voice acting. Hello Amy Wong from Futurama and Minh from King of the Hill! Howard Shore, David Cronenberg’s composer of choice at the time worked for someone else here and would go on to win three Oscars for The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
I can’t say that Nothing Lasts Forever is a great movie, but I can say that I enjoyed it. I can also say that it’s a thoroughly original film, a groundbreaking one in many respects and an important one for a number of its cast and crew. It’s a real shame that it’s therefore not available. How many of us grew up watching Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd movies in the eighties and thought we’d seen them all? Well, here’s another one, folks. There’s not a lot of the latter here, but the former has a major part and could easily be seen as Adam Beckett’s nemesis, the last obstacle blocking him from realising his artistic identity, and the world can always benefit from a fresh Bill Murray feature, even if it’s over thirty years old. Murray, more than anyone, has kept this alive, insisting on its inclusion in retrospectives of his work, and there are periodic rumblings that it’ll finally see a release. I wouldn’t count on it, because of the rights issue with the older footage. However, I do hope that you can locate a grey market copy so you can take this trip too.

Richard Brody - A Lost Comedic Masterpiece from 1984 (newyorker.com)
Aisha Harris - Bill Murray’s Unreleased 1984 Sci-Fi Comedy is Now Online (slate.com)
Stephen Saito - Nothing Lasts Forever, Yet This Bill Murray Movie Persists (ifc.com)
Adam Woodward - An Unreleased Bill Murray Sci-fi Comedy from 1984 Has Resurfaced (lwlies.com)

1 comment:

lmshah said...

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER played more than a test market run in Seattle, it also played in Phoenix, Arizona at the Harkins Tower Plaza Theaters in 1984, that's where I first saw it. It was another 25 years before I saw it again anywhere, and no one I ever mentioned anything about it to had ever heard of it.