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Hipster Holy Grail: Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 1,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The blurb for people who don't like to read actual criticism:

Nothing Lasts Forever is a sometimes sappy, sometimes cheesy adventure / romance / comedy / 1930s throwback that plays like an experimental proto-Hipster anachronism.  And while that may not sound appealing at first, let me assure you that it is a terrific movie.  It's a breezy, punchy tale that dips its toes into satire without losing any of its positive energy or charm.

My Rating:  4 / 5

The longer bits for people who like film discussion:

The Bit Wherein I Introduce Things

I had never heard of Tom Schiller before this week.  A quick review of his credits leads me to believe he's an important behind-the-scenes guy; somebody who pulls strings and makes big things happen.  He was an important part of Saturday Night Live history as one of the original writers in 1975 and went on to direct several short films for the show.

In 1984 he wrote and directed a feature film - his first and only such credit, as far as I can tell.  That feature, Nothing Lasts Forever, ended up sitting on a shelf somewhere in one of MGM's warehouses.

I'm a little bit fuzzy on the exact history of the movie.  I know for sure that it has been withheld from a home theater release due to copyright issues.  However, I'm unclear as to whether or not it was ever released theatrically, or if it was just screened at a few festivals and one-off events.  The full story is told in a book about Tom Schiller's career, which I may end up reading one day - but that's a bit much for a Thursday HHG entry, so let's take a step back.

The point is that the movie qualifies as a "lost" film, having never officially gone through the typical theater-to-DVD life cycle.  Oddly enough, it's status as a lost film may be the reason that it has reached most of its audience so far.

Schiller's SNL experience is in full force here, as the entire movie has the playful, over-the-top sensibilities of many a late-night sketch.  It's a hammy, fun, spastic ride with corny dialogue and even cornier performances.

The Bit Wherein I Describe the Movie's Plot

Adam Beckett (Zach Galligan) is an aspiring artist.  His biggest problem is that he's just not sure what his medium is.  Does he want to be a pianist?  A painter?  A poet?  Yes to all of the above - except that he's equally untalented at all of them.

Nevertheless, Adam has a persistent attitude of good cheer and enthusiasm, so he sets out to take the world by storm and become An Artist.

His adventure begins when he tries to return home to New York following a prolonged journey abroad.  In the time since has been traveling, all the public officials of New York have gone on strike, so the Port Authority has taken over.  The city is now under their command: a sort of martial law, but more bureaucratic than violent.

The Port Authority requires Adam to undergo Artistic Testing before he is allowed to become an artist - and since he's still not sure what exactly he's trying to do, he fails.  (His test, incidentally, is one of the first big laughs in the movie.  Adam is told to sit in front of a nude model and sketch for exactly sixty seconds.  His output is nothing more than a hastily-scribbled triangle of pubic hair.)

Adam is then required to work as an attendant at the Holland Tunnel until he can retake the test and prove his artistic mettle.  In the meantime, he continues to do his best at spreading good cheer by donating money to the homeless and networking with other artists.

There's several great bits here, including a scene where Adam goes to an art gallery to check out the "amazing" new installation by a friend of a friend:  a German guy counting to a million while walking on a treadmill.  Students and other aspiring artists sit around the treadmill in delighted awe while Adam slowly falls asleep.  There's also a fantastic parody here of the early industrial music movement, in which Adam stands in a dance hall and subtly tries to cover his ears as a stoic band hums ominously on stage.

The New York sequence takes up about half of the movie's run time.  Until The Turn comes you might expect that it's entirely a quirky small-scale comedy about New York artists and neo-Bohemians.

In many ways, I prefer this half of the film.  It's still a fantastical movie - the sets, costumes, and dialogue all hint at an alternate universe where the world never outgrew the corny hyper-realism of 1930s / 1940s Hollywood.  But despite this tone, the movie is anchored in real-world physics and digs away at a clear thematic arc.  All of that changes at The Turn.

It comes up at around minute 40.  One of the bums that Adam gave charity to earlier in the film reappears and takes him to a mysterious elevator.  They descend several stories down into the Earth as the film fades from black-and-white into color.  At the bottom of the elevator, Adam finds a hidden society of puppet-masters whose sole purpose is to spread cheer and happiness throughout the world.

It sounds a little bit ominous when spelled out, but they're actually a lovable bunch of angelic beings.  They have agents on the surface whom they can manipulate or guide toward new careers or pursuits.  These agents, in turn, do good deeds or create new works that will inspire and delight others.  "We have agents in every major city," the bum explains, "but there's one place we've never been able to reach."

Adam, thrilled at the chance to be a part of the merry-making endeavor, asks, "Where?"

"The moon."

Why not?  So, the second half of the movie is Adam's journey to the moon.  Things suddenly take on an even quirkier tone and all conventional science is thrown out the window.

There's an entire alternate history full of underhanded government meddling and greedy capitalistic plotting that is casually exposited in a few brief scenes on a bus - BTW, they get to the moon via bus - and then Adam has an adventure on The Moon.

The moon sequence is definitely the more memorable half of the movie, as it contains all of the most whimsical moments.  This is also the half of the movie that has other main characters: Eloy (Lauren Tom) and the principal antagonist, Ted (Bill Murray).

Eloy is native to the moon and was predestined to fall in love with Adam; they have each been given a vision of the other and were told by miscellaneous forces that they are fated to be together.  Ted, however, is a cruel and shady businessman who specializes in gathering retirees from Earth and bringing them to a Mega Mall on the moon where they can buy all of his wares.  Ted sees Adam and Eloy's romance as a threat to his scheme, so he immediately sets out to capture Adam and remove him from the picture.

If there was any external conflict in the movie, this would be it - and it all happens in the last 20-30 minutes.  I hate to deduct points, but this is a point of complaint for me.  The movie packs so much wonderful content into such an abbreviated run-time - why not make it longer and give us more time to enjoy the moon?  Why not let Murray ham it up a bit more as the villain?  Why not explore some of the relationships that have been set up and give Eloy and Adam's love more time to blossom?

The moon sequence is sadly brief, and the post-moon sequence wherein Adam returns to New York feels even more rushed.  The ending is still adorable and fuzzy and puts a nice cap on everything, but I'm left unsatisfied.  Then again, maybe that's the mark of a great movie - you are left wanting more when it ends.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Sociocultural Relevance

I didn't have a lot to say in this bit, but I did want to mention a minor thing I noticed.

During the New York half of the movie, Adam starts a relationship with Mara (Apollonia van Ravenstein), a German ex-pat and fellow aspiring artist.  Contrary to the childlike sterility of Adam's enthusiasm and "can do!" attitude, Mara is cold, cynical, and decidedly more "adult."  Their relationship, too, takes on a more "adult" status, as we see Adam and Mara kiss passionately and even make love.

During the moon half of the movie, Adam seems to have completely forgotten about Mara.  He is perfectly content to profess his love for Eloy and follow her on a dangerous mission (of spreading happiness).  Yet all we see of their love is a single, gentle kiss.  The romance with Mara is R-rated, the romance with Eloy is G-rated.  Why the discrepancy?

Partly you could attribute this to the tone surrounding each romance.  Adam's pursuit of Mara recalls a sort of grimy, get-your-hands-dirty, by-any-means-necessary struggle for artistic truth and beauty, which means that the movie doesn't shy away from depicting the full extent of their relationship - sex included.  Meanwhile, Adam's pursuit of Eloy represents a fated, gifted kind of artistry; it is glossy, lovely, and handed to him with no particular amount of grit.  (Consider also that immediately after he kisses Eloy, Adam is suddenly a musical prodigy.)

On that hand, I think it's a fascinating and subtle approach at showing two different attitudes one can take toward art.  But I just can't shake this dirty feeling of racism.

You see, Mara / Appolonia van Ravenstein is white, so there's no problem with showing Adam / Zach Galligan, a white dude, make out with her and even simulate penetration.  But Eloy / Lauren Tom is of Chinese descent.  (All of the lunar natives are played by Asian actresses.)  This was quite probably a case where interracial romance would've been too shocking to our fragile Reaganite brains.

Of course, I write this as if we've gotten over it.  Jesus, even Hitch had to put up with this bullcrap.  Sigh.

The Bit Wherein I Discuss Thematic Relevance

I hate to keep bringing up complaints about a movie that I enjoyed this much, but there is one other point I have to make.  The film has a misleading message about artistic development.  It's not wholly problematic, but it just needs a bit of punching up.

The overall lesson is something like, "Art exists because an artist makes it."  It is an indescribable, incalculable thing that comes into being.  You cannot (and should not) regulate it, you cannot (and should not) test for it, and you cannot (and should not) replicate it through scientific, workman-like means.

Unfortunately, it gets a bit hazy as to where Adam ultimately gets his artistic skill.  He acquires it by magic; as if all he needed all along was a spark of love in his heart, and that was enough to bring his latent powers to the surface.  This is a bit too convenient for my taste.  I agree that Art is difficult to define and I can even agree that it requires, to some extent, an inherent capacity for creative expression.  But I can't agree that it "just happens."  Art is a process; the movie turns it into an on/off switch.

Leaving that aside, however, I think NLF espouses an important and brilliant idea about art.  No, that's too soft.  It has an idea about ~~Art~~.

The entire movie is basically a frenetic dream state that an artist may find themselves in when they are surrounded by inspiration.  Adam's dealings with a dictatorial Port Authority is just his day-to-day monotony when viewed under the lens of artistic passion - the minor things that get in your way and prevent you from producing ~~Art~~ are no longer trivial annoyances, they are the work of outright tyranny.  And his journey to the moon is not a literal science-fiction voyage; it is the ethereal quality of having figured out what your next move is in that play you're writing, or the lyrics to that song you're composing.  Adam is becoming an Artist and doing exactly what he hopes to do, so on a metaphorical level he is "on the moon."

The underground angels who manipulate the world, then, are not actually spreading "happiness," as they state.  What they're actually spreading is "inspiration."  They're in the business of ensuring that   ~~Art~~ may survive.  Not coincidentally, the angels are poor; true ~~Art~~ is not created for profit, but for the purity of its being.

It's a subtle and joyous celebration of obscure artists and their struggle against a world that fails to see the point.  Yet in the end, that world is still cheering for Adam.  Ultimately we still need and want ~~Art~~ - we just don't always know it.  In the (butchered) words of the movie, "You will get exactly what you are looking for, but you will not get it in the way you expect."

The Bit Wherein I Conclude Things

And now I have to make the obligatory comment about how ironic it was that a movie about struggling artists and their marginalization in a cold world would end up being marginalized by a cold world.

It almost feels like NLF was specifically made for me to discover thirty years later.  Do a Google search and you'll immediately get smacked in the face with a handful of reviews on other overlooked movie blogs like this one, which leads me to believe that the movie's target audience is modern day bloggers looking for obscure films to write about.

It's definitely not a movie for everyone.  The cheesy classic cinema vibe is enjoyable, but I suspect most people can only tolerate it in small doses.  The bizarre voyage to the moon is an unconventional narrative.  The overly joyous protagonist would seem grating to a cynical money-maker in the 1980s who expected Russia to drop a nuke at any minute.

But NLF achieved something not too many movies ever attain: timelessness.  It plays as well now as it ever could.  For a movie whose title specifically implies the mortality of all things - art included - it endures.

Though it has not been officially released, you can find at least two different YouTube feeds online right now.  My recommendation?  Download a plug-in for your browser to save it as an MP4 file while you can.  This is the kind of movie that justifies piracy.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth? (Added March 2017)

This might be the most unique entry in the HHG.  It is obscure only in the sense that it was never released, but that very fact is the main reason it is somewhat well-known today.  It still falls well under the 1,000 rating IMDb cap I have for the Grail, but there are plenty of movies out there that are far less watched, and certainly plenty more that are less celebrated.

So, I think I have to give this one a big fat 0 hipster cred out of a possible 100.  Any argument I can think to make for it to have cred is cancelled out by film circles' adulation.  It's almost an anti-hipster movie - there is no irony within or without, just sincere appreciation from all perspectives.