Review: Wisconsin Film Festival
Nothing Lasts Forever | Tom Schiller | US | 1984 | 82 minutes
Taylor Hanley looks at the little-seen 1984 feature film from former Saturday Night Live writer and short filmmaker, Tom Schiller, who will be a guest at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival. Taylor argues that the imaginative mix of past and then-present sensibilities in Nothing Lasts Forever provides many comic nuggets to enjoy, but her response was tempered by an annoying, vacant protagonist and a meandering plot.
Nothing Lasts Forever opens much like any 1930s film, despite the film being made in 1984. The MGM lion roars in black-and-white, followed by a long string of credits in period lettering and layout accompanied by a matching orchestral score. We then come to the main character, Adam (Zach Galligan), a classical pianist in front of a particularly old and wealthy-looking crowd. He finishes his recital and rushes off the stage seemingly unnerved. After some coercion he goes out for his encore. He suddenly jumps off the piano bench mid-piece but the piano keeps playing—a player piano! The angry crowd goes crazy, rushing the stage yelling, “He’s a fake!” They maul him, and keep on screaming.
Then Adam wakes up on a train in Europe and we discover that the whole opening scene was a nightmare. An older man sitting across from him in the compartment engages Adam in conversation, and we learn that Adam desperately wants to be an artist. He wants to be an artist really really badly. But, he doesn’t know his medium. The man ultimately convinces Adam to go back to America, and ends the conversation by saying “You will get everything you want in your lifetime, but not in the way you expect.” Pretty mysterious!
So Adam flies back home to Manhattan to become an artist. For the rest of the film he is driven to be an “artist,” but there is never any proof of motivation, talent, or any kind of an explanation why he wants to be an artist so badly.
The city of Manhattan, in this fictional universe, has been taken over by the Port Authority. When Adam arrives at customs he has to state his business in the city, and when he declares himself an artist he has to prove his artistic legitimacy by taking a very peculiar test. He is put in a room with a naked lady and he is told by an obnoxious voice that he doesn’t have much time to draw her, and that he should do a good job. His end product is a textured but suggestive triangle. He fails the test, but to remain in Manhattan he must be gainfully employed. He is sent to direct traffic in the Holland Tunnel and work under a fast-talking supervisor played by Dan Aykroyd.
The film is odd because of a strange combination of past and futuristic elements. My guess what year the film is supposed to be set in kept changing. Some reviews describe the setting as the “near future,” but as with the opening credits the cars, clothing, decor, and even found footage sequences are often from the 30s and 40s. Even though Adam wakes up from the opening dream, the entire film has a dreamlike quality and logic.
Adam goes to stay at the apartment of his Aunt Anita (singer Anita Ellis, who dubbed Rita Hayworth’s voice in Gilda) and Uncle Mort (early 1960’s iconoclastic comedian Mort Sahl). He arrives in the middle of that typical scene from films like To Have or Have Not, where a lady sings with the accompaniment of a piano in the middle of a dinner party. However, there are hints of both the 1980s-present and the future: the poignantly 80’s art scene, a hidden city of underground New York, and a trip to the moon.
Nothing Lasts Forever has nuggets to enjoy. I really liked when the film got silly, like during the dinner party when guests were framed to look like they had antlers. The scenes with Bill Murray as the sky host for the “cruise” ship filled with old people going to the moon are imaginative. And a chip that makes “moon’”come out as “Miami” is hilarious.
But overall I found Adam void of personality and a bit annoying. Other characters view him as generous and innocent, but I wasn’t convinced of that at all. The film doesn’t create adequate sympathy for him, or align the audience with his perspective enough to get me to care about him and what happens. I also do not understand why he wants to be an artist so badly. The plot isn’t very intriguing, and most of the time it is hard to know what is going on. The film seems to be making some kind of statement. I really have no idea what the film was trying to say, if it was trying to say anything.
If you’ve read the Wisconsin Film Festival’s synopsis of this film than you’ll know that others love it. Nothing Lasts Forever was never widely released in theaters or on home video. The film was uploaded to YouTube at some point and has only been shown on a few occasions between its original release and its revival at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2015. Though arguably easier to access today, the Wisconsin Film Festival provides a chance to see this rare film in the presence of its creator, Tom Schiller, who first rose to fame as a writer and filmmaker for Saturday Night Live.