Tom Schiller is in frame for another closeup. The writer-director may be best known for being part of the original cast and countercultural think tank of Saturday Night Live during its ’70s heyday. Schiller spent 11 years on the show and, during his time there, made a series of short films that cast SNL stars like Gilda Radner and John Belushi in unique homages to art house cinema. Most famously, the 1978 black-and-white vignette Don’t Look Back in Anger featured an elderly Belushi in a graveyard, reflecting on the passing of his now-deceased fellow cast members, and then breaking into a playful dance. “I really knew Belushi and Gilda well, so I made movies that I thought could tap into their highest acting and emotional thing,” says Schiller. “Those actors only showed their comedy sides but they had these rich, emotional sadnesses and they welcomed the opportunity.”
Film buffs are hip to Schiller’s 1984 full-length flick Nothing Lasts Forever, a 75-minute piece of celluloid black humor that is truly in a class by itself.
“I would describe it as a suppressed-maybe-classic or an accidental home movie made with a large studio,” says Schiller of this underground fave. Sun-Ray Cinema is offering a screening the film Sept. 27, as well as an introduction by and Q&A with Schiller.
The film takes place in a dystopian Manhattan; the Port Authority has placed the city under totalitarian control. Disenchanted artist Adam (Zach Galligan) fails the PA’s standardized art test and is assigned to a grunt job on the midnight shift at the Holland Tunnel. Adam’s “pure desire” in wanting to be an artist leads to an invitation to a clandestine realm that culminates in a proverbial trip out of this world.
Over the course of the story, Adam encounters a veritable flurry of characters offering either advice or annoyance. Dan Aykroyd stars as a cranky supervisor and Bill Murray plays smarmy flight attendant Ted Breughel. Costars include Imogene Coca, Mort Sahl, Eddie Fisher, Sam Jaffe and even soap guru Dr. Bronner.
Schiller’s razor-sharp wit cuts fast as he takes stabs at everything from bureaucratic oppression and the arts scene to consumerism and conspiracy. The Golden Age of Hollywood, art house cinema, musicals and B-movies are blended into a cinematic mashup that splits the difference between Federico Fellini, Mel Brooks and Thomas Pynchon. Shot in black-and-white, the film’s use of newsreels and select passages featuring color scenes add to the bizarre action. “I see the world in black-and-white and sometimes color, and filtered through all of the films I’ve seen,” says Schiller. “This movie is just an amalgam of how I look at things.”
Schiller threw everything he had into his Hollywood debut, albeit with his own unorthodox sensibility. “I didn’t know what I was doing. I had never written a feature. There’s no story arc or resolution. I just made it up as I went along.” After one negative test screening in Seattle, MGM Studios shelved the film — and it’s never been commercially released. “The studio offered me two words: It’s bad,” Schiller laughs. “It was a pretty strong blow to my ego. I thought that I was going to be the next Fellini.”
Although the film was canned, it’s enjoyed a tremendous cult following over the ensuing years. European television regularly airs it, and it’s a longtime favorite of cinema heads, who have passed it around on bootleg VHS tapes, DVDs and .wav files. The Warner Archive currently owns the film and has “threatened” to release it, but has yet to put it out before the viewing public. Periodically, film societies and indie theaters will screen Schiller’s effort; it’s been featured at the Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the American Cinematheque in Hollywood.
Decades after it was pulled from potential distribution, Schiller feels vindicated by the film’s devout following and a success story that bypassed Hollywood’s industry bean-counters. “Once in a while,” he says, “I wake up in the middle of the night screaming with my fists clenched, but ultimately I’m rather happy that it ended up like this.”
Early on in Nothing Lasts Forever, the film’s protagonist has a strange encounter while traveling abroad. It’s a scene based on Schiller’s real life and, like his beloved Ingmar Bergman did, he blends it into his cinematic work.
“When I was 20,” he says, “I was on a train and I was so miserable that you could tell by looking at me, because I was the tortured young artist. And this Swedish architect sitting across from me finally said, ‘You’re having a nightmare. Don’t worry. You will get everything you want in your life, only you won’t get it in the way you expect.’ And that’s the truest thing I’ve ever heard. Because it came true.”