I love a good quest. There’s nothing that drives a plot quite like it, from Jason setting out to find the Golden Fleece to Indiana Jones’ determination to track down the Ark of the Covenant. Along the way there is always action, and adventure, and some friends to meet and enemies to defeat. Because that’s how a quest works.
Quests don’t have to be about objects. They can also be about finding your place in the world, and Nothing Lasts Forever tells the story of Adam Beckett, a young man who wants to be an artist, even though he has no idea of what an artist actually is. His quest takes him to a strange, totalitarian Manhattan where wannabe artists must sit a practical exam, and eventually to some very surprising places, including the moon. It’s fair to say that Nothing Lasts Forever is a very strange film.
The film comes with a weird story of its own. It was made in 1984, and was directed by Tom Schiller, who worked as a writer for Saturday Night Live, creating skits that often parodied films such as La Dolce Vita and Look Back in Anger. This is the only film he directed, and it was never officially released. MGM postponed its release for undefined reasons, and although it has been seen on German TV and you can watch it on YouTube right now, it’s still nowhere near getting an official airing. Copyright issues could be a large part of the problem – there are so many clips from other movies within the body of the film that it would take serious effort to name them all. Just to give you a taste, I saw Battleship Potemkin, Un Chien Andalou, and I Love Lucy in the space of a few minutes. It’s an eclectic bunch.
You can find a lot of SNL faces in the film, including Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray, but one thing you won’t find is a cohesive style. It’s a deliberate mish-mash of so many other types of movie, from 1930s screwball comedies to 1950s B-movie science fiction, although perhaps the overriding feeling of it is Capraesque; it has a sweetness about it, and a lot of that comes from Zach Galligan’s performance as the hero, Adam Beckett. Fresh from appearing in Gremlins (1984) he turns up here, starting out the film as a fake concert pianist who can’t stand the guilt any more. During a packed performance he removes his hands from the keyboard and the audience gasps when they hear the music playing on from a pre-recording. Then they rush the stage and attack him, laughing maniacally. He is wide-eyed and desperate to find his own way, and he believes in art and love and all those concepts that are so difficult to hold on to in a mad world.
Down on his luck and determined to be a real artist, Adam sets out on a journey that leads him to meet with many strange mentors, and he learns something new with every step. Everything fills him with wonder. If you’re looking for a plot that makes sense, you won’t find it, but the journey is complete and it does bring Adam full-circle. I found it a fulfilling experience.
So there’s a bit of Fritz Lang, a bit of Hitchcock, a Powell and Pressburger moment or two, a lot of Terry Gilliam, the influence of HG Wells and Victor Hugo, and musical moments that remind you of either classic Broadway or David Lynch depending on how freaked out you are by such things. It flits between black and white and colour for moments of revelation, which reminded me of The Wizard of Oz more than anything. Nothing Lasts Forever is definitely a film for film buffs. At one point 1950s singing legend Eddie Fisher (the father of Carrie Fisher) turns up and sings a number. After he’s finished, the pianist plays on, and treats us to ‘You are my Lucky Star’, which was sung by Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. Debbie Reynolds was Eddie Fisher’s wife once upon a time. I get the feeling the film is filled with such filmic connections and I probably missed a lot of them because I got wrapped up in the story. But the more you know your movies, the more you’ll get out of it.
I’m not sure it’s worth watching simply because you’re a fan of either Dan Aykroyd or Bill Murray. They aren’t the main attractions here and have small parts in which they play obstreperous characters, caught up with the minutiae of their jobs. Although, having said that, I can watch Bill Murray in anything and get a kick out of the fact that it’s Bill Murray. The love interest, played by Lauren Tom (who later appeared in Friends as Ross’s girlfriend Julie), is charming and fits perfectly with Zach Galligan, and they sing a really lovely duet at one point that made me feel a bit Rodgers and Hammerstein. It’s very South Pacific.
There can’t be many things left that I haven’t mentioned as a reference, and I haven’t even mentioned the many moments in which famous artists make an appearance, from Magritte to Dali. It’s worth a watch just to see how many you find, and also to enjoy the visual playfulness of the film. It never takes itself seriously. The special effects are worthy of Ed Wood; rockets pass by on strings. And Adam’s relatives have a great apartment in which the décor consists of dead animals. A tigerskin rug clashes with a zebra print sofa and their guests stand in front of many horns and antlers that have been attached to the wall. Adam’s uncle’s name? Uncle Mort.
Personally I think the film is about the difficulty of finding your own artistic voice in a world filled with so many artists, dead or alive, who make it impossible to say something fresh. But you could just as easily claim it’s a film about love overcoming repression, or how consumerism kills happiness, or the battle between youth and age. What’s it all about? I don’t really know. But I like it.
I can tell you that the star of the show isn’t Bill Murray, or even any of the actors. It’s film, through the ages. Perhaps that’s why I like it. If you enjoy all genres of film and you want to try something very different and yet absolutely recognisable in terms of a quest story, then it might be worth tracking Nothing Lasts Forever down while you can.
This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK in 2014.