The deadpan-comic sci-fi of Tom Schiller's 1984 film, Nothing Lasts Forever, unfolds in an alternate universe: California is in ruins after a major earthquake, general strikes have prompted the New York Port Authority to assume martial control of Manhattan, and the moon is now a secret shopping destination for the elderly, who get there via an intergalactic bus operated by Bill Murray.

Never theatrically released and still unavailable on DVD, Nothing Lasts Forever — a restored, never-before-seen print of which screens Thursday night at the American Cinematheque — is the only feature-length work made by Schiller, now a commercial director.

It was produced by Lorne Michaels, Schiller's then-boss at Saturday Night Live, where Schiller's Reel short films were early prototypes for today's YouTube–tailored SNL Digital Shorts. He spoofed Fellini in “La Dolce Gilda” (featuring Gilda Radner and Dan Aykroyd); in his “Don't Look Back in Anger,” John Belushi played himself as a geezer, the last survivor of the original SNL cast (“They all thought I'd be the first to go,” Belushi cracks from a snow-covered cemetery in the now-eerie clip).

“I was aping foreign films,” Schiller says today. “When I was doing it, there were, like, three other people making short films for a living. Now there are about 3 million on the Internet.” Ten Schiller's Reel shorts will kick off the Cinematheque's screening at the Egyptian.

Alternating between brilliant Technicolor and smoky-textured black-and-white (it looks convincingly vintage despite having been shot on color stock), Schiller sweeps through 50 years of cultural and cinematic references in the first 30 minutes of Forever: When Adam Beckett (Zach Galligan, who starred in Gremlins that same year) makes his debut as a concert pianist at Carnegie Hall and is promptly revealed as a fraud, 1930s backstage screwball flows into a mob scene straight out of American Madness; a drawing test (complete with live nude model) to determine if Adam has “any artistic skills that would be of value to the city of Manhattan” offers a bombshell-nebbish confrontation that could have come from 1950s Frank Tashlin; the '80s-vintage skinny ties and running jokes about the conceptual art scene's totalitarian overtones mock the notion of cultural individualism in Reagan America.

But where other comedian-driven films of the era that harken back to old Hollywood (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Pennies From Heaven, etc.) were obvious about the targets of their tribute, Forever's homage remains ambiguous. Schiller conflates apparent references to multiple decades into a phantasmagoria of The Past, while allegorizing the present day and maintaining a romantic, probably delusional hope for the future. Adam's beautiful German co-worker describes him as having “a sort of boyish quality, with a madness behind the eyes.” The film's similar blend of naïveté and structural insanity did not go over well with its studio backer, MGM-UA.

“When you write a script for a studio, they review it for inaccuracies and copyright infringements and stuff. And one of the notes was, 'A bus can't fly.' ” Schiller laughs. “Seriously.”

Amid the post–Heaven's Gate turmoil of the '80s, the studio didn't pay much attention to the production. “MGM was going through some sort of change, and it slipped in,” Schiller says. It was only when Forever was finished that the studio heads realized that, to their chagrin, they had “an art film” on their hands. Schiller sensed trouble when Forever was accepted by the Cannes Film Festival, but MGM wouldn't let him accept the invitations. After a single test screening in Seattle, the studio informed the filmmaker that it wasn't going to release it.

“The film is bad, I guess,” Schiller says, laughing. “No, I really haven't been given a sufficient explanation as to why they didn't release it. I think it's just because they didn't think it was commercial.”

Maybe they just weren't ready: With its free-associative flow between temporal allusions and specific cinematic references, and mash-up of stock footage and staged material, Nothing Lasts Forever feels like a film tailor-made for Internet-savvy audiences.

Fuzzy bootlegs have circulated in the wake of Forever's occasional appearances at film festivals and on European TV, adding to the film's cult cachet. The rights are now owned by Warner Bros., which, Schiller says, used to send out a print missing certain scenes (including that drawing test with its long shot of bare breasts) until the filmmaker enlisted the DGA to help him reinstate the film. WB has no immediate plans to release a DVD, and Schiller is ambivalent as to whether he even wants the movie to have a higher profile.

“I began to enjoy the underground cult status. The fact that you have pirated editions. I like that. But I would also enjoy it if it was available to a lot of people.”

On Thursday night, at least, it will be.

NOTHING LASTS FOREVER & SCHILLER’S REEL: Thurs., April 1, 7:30 p.m.; American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hlywd.; americancinematheque.com.

LA Weekly