You've never heard of it. Yet it stars Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, it was the first film SNL's Lorne Michaels ever produced, and it aired for the first time in history at 2 AM last Monday.
Any channel-flipping insomniac who might have come across Turner Classic Movie channel's late-night screening of Nothing Lasts Forever at 2 am one Monday morning would hardly have raised an eyebrow. Another innocuous black-and-white science fiction B-movie, with a maudlin big-band soundtrack and ample 50s era stock footage intercut between stilted dramatic sequences.
But wait—no. That's impossible. Because isn't that Dan Aykroyd? And there, playing a sky host on a moonbound commuter bus—a young Bill Murray? Now our poor insomniac would be mightily confused. How could Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray be in a film that looks for all the world as though it were made in 1952? Is this, like the alleged time-traveler caught on film in Charlie Chaplin's 1928 film The Circus, some instance of paranormal cinematic anachronism?
Calm down. It's Nothing Lasts Forever, a surrealist 1984 romp playing classic movie tropes against expectation. Convincingly. Directed by Tom Schiller, a longtime Saturday Night Live writer—he of the "Schiller's Reel" segments—the movie was Lorne Michaels' first effort as a producer. Beyond Ackroyd and Murray, it also stars comedy legends Imogene Coca and Mort Sahl. You've never heard of it because it never saw theatrical release; Metro Goldwyn-Mayer canned the film after one mediocre test screening, and it has remained criminally underseen ever since.
With the exception of a few prestige screenings over the last decade—at the BAM Cinematek, the Lincoln Center, at the American Cinematheque and the Cinefamily in Los Angeles, to name a few, all largely thanks to Bill Murray's insistence that Warner Brothers make a print of the film available for retrospectives of his career—Nothing Lasts Forever's only distribution over the last three decades has been a network of bootleg copies made from rare European television screenings, traded by cinephiles and comedy geeks. Until it turned up on TCM Sunday, in the middle of the night, Nothing Lasts Forever had never been aired on American television.
Comedian and writer Jake Fogelnest is one such cinephile comedy geek who twigged to Nothing Lasts Forever a long time ago; he first heard of it in the late 90s, as a piece of filmic legend, but it was another decade before he came across a bootleg DVD.
"Having someone describe this movie to you is very frustrating," he explained to me over email. "A black and white film directed by Tom Schiller, produced by Lorne Michaels, starring the kid from Gremlins, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and it's NEVER been released? Oh, and by the way they go to the MOON? How could this never come out? That just doesn't make sense. It didn't make sense…when I first heard about it in the 90s and it makes even less sense that it's still essentially unavailable in 2015."
It's difficult to explain, exactly, what Nothing Lasts Forever is all about. In a dystopian New York City under the iron thumb of the Port Authority, our protagonist, played by Gremlins star Zach Galligan, is a struggling, doe-eyed artist with a thankless job: monitoring cars at the entrance of the Holland Tunnel. Despite having failed the state-sanctioned art test, he spends his nights loafing about the East Village with a leggy German dilettante, trying to draw inspiration from a parodic series of performance artists and art-noise bands.
His kindness to a tramp on the steps of Carnegie Hall, however, soon leads to a one-time invitation to the city's true reality: an underground world where magical hobos determine the fates of every New Yorker. The hobo brotherhood promises him a bright future as an artist, if only he can get to the moon first, and fulfill his destiny as the true love of a lunar native named Eloi, played by Lauren Tom with light-up deely-boppers on her head. It gets weirder, but I don't want to spoil Nothing Lasts Forever's singular pleasures, which unfold in loopy dreamtime and could not be more wonderful to discover firsthand, even 31 years later.
"It's always interesting when a movie gets lost," explains Millie DeChirico, the programmer for TCM Underground, the late-night programming block that featured the film Sunday, "especially one that has a lot of cool people attached to it. I'd never seen it or even heard much about it before I figured out it was available to air... but I just knew it would be something people would want to see." There were apparently no serious licensing hurdles to airing the film, it had simply been overlooked.
"I chose Nothing Lasts Forever just because it's so rarely seen," DeChirico said, "part of the job of programming TCM Underground is trying to put these kinds of films on the air."
Tonally, Nothing Lasts Forever is equal measures Thomas Pynchon and Destination Moon, a pitch-perfect mimicry of a camp 1950s science fiction film filtered through a literary fever dream. No surprise from a director best known for his cinematic send-ups on Saturday Night Live; Schiller's iconic "Love is a Dream," a 1988 SNL segment starring Phil Hartman and Jan Hooks, which was recently re-aired on SNL to commemorate Hooks' death, isn't even funny—just a sentimental, timeless pastiche, a shred of celluloid from some parallel past.
Warner Brothers currently owns the rights to Nothing Lasts Forever; they've stated that "unspecified legal difficulties" keep the film from its rightful DVD release. Those issues are likely the prodigious amount of vintage film clips the movie contains; the bits and pieces of everything from I Love Lucy to Battleship Potemkin peppered throughout Nothing Lasts Forever not only give the film its particular vintage flavor—they make it a copyright nightmare. A source at the Warner Archive confirmed to me that the film is not cleared for home video.
Still, Warner reps have stated that the film's reissue is "on the middle burner—not the front, but not the back."
Let's hope those burners stay warm.
If you're a cable subscriber, Nothing Lasts Forever is available to stream on TCM's 'Watch TCM' app until January 15th. For the rest of us, there's always the bootleg underground.