Not everyone would call The Way Things Go a documentary. It’s mostly known as an art film, one that is shown in museums around the world. I think the IMDb listing is the only place I’ve seen the ‘d’ word applied to the half-hour short, which also screened at the Toronto International Film Festival 25 years ago today. That wasn’t the premiere, as it had debuted a year earlier at Germany’s Documenta 8 exhibition, which in spite of the name has nothing to do with documentaries. Directed by the duo known as Fischli/Weiss (Peter Fischli and the late David Weiss), the film presents a Rube Goldberg machine involving common objects. It’s basically a continuous (yet not quite in a single shot) recording of a 100-foot-long chain reaction installation.
And so here’s the reason I consider it a documentary: it is a record of the art project as much as it is itself part of the art project. For its purposes, the work is similar to a concert film. Because there is comedy, I guess that would make it specifically aligned with a stand-up concert film. But because of how planned and controlled the whole performance of these mechanics is and how carefully choreographed its filming was, the movie I think of most as a creative cousin is Scorsese’s heavily produced The Last Waltz. But even that had room and possibility for actual chaos, or at least the free will of the players on stage. The performing parts of The Way Things Go rarely have the allowance to do anything of a variable nature. Otherwise the whole thing might not work.
Not only do I think this film is a documentary, but I also see it as having a lot to say about documentary. Unlike the content of The Way Things Go, most works of nonfiction cinema tend to be based in the unknown, the unpredictable and the uncontrollable elements of life and reality. Many filmmakers set out with a narrative in their heads or a point they want to make or a hypothesis for their expected outcome to a devised experimental premise. Rarely does everything go as planned. Yet after everything is all filmed, they are allotted more control in the editing. I don’t know that we can look at the subtle cuts in this film and think there were actually any accidents or multiple takes involved, but we can imagine that what we see has also been manipulated in post-production, too.
The objects in the film also, in spite of being meticulously arranged and constructed and contrived, are representative of the causal nature of human subjects. Yes, we can predict the chemical or physical reactions of the materials on screen, and of course the filmmakers flat-out knew how every scientific process would go (the title is like a statement of the factuality of these processes), but there are also rules and certain consequences to actions in the real world that as we follow them are akin to, say, the way a flame lights a fuse or liquid pours and flows downward. That the objects in The Way Things Go are household items including cleaning products and garbage bags and coffee cups further connects them to us.
On the other hand, while the film can make us think of how the objects are like real life, we can also think of how life is given an artificial or at least performative nature, particularly in documentaries. There is a fixed, mechanical aspect to the way many sit-down, talking-head interviews go. They’re certainly no more “real” than a set-up sheet of foaming liquid viscously seeping along a path. In fact, the waiting involved with some talking heads can be comparable to waiting involved with some of the slower, more suspenseful parts of The Way Things Go, as we wait for something significant to be said or just something to happen. Both are edited to cut down on the time, too.
It’s fine if others still just see the film as an art project. I could also understand if anyone sees it as representing fiction films more than nonfiction. It is in a way an action movie, complete with kinetic interactions and explosions. In fact, it should be re-released on the big screen during the summer as a pure blockbuster, minus all the boring dialogue and potential for “goofs” — it’s maybe the one action movie that is completely in tune with the laws of physics and the logic of plot points, obviously. I doubt many of the Rube Goldberg machines in major Hollywood movies, such as Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Back to the Future, The Money Pit and The Goonies, or anything by Jean-Pierre Jeunet could be claimed as being so perfect.
I guess if I’m going to label The Way Things Go a documentary classic, I have to address if I think a certain Honda commercial or music videos by OK GO are documentaries. Well, the former is a rip-off of this and is, of course, an advertisement, so no. Never mind the fact that many docs are also big ads. And the music video only would be if it was either silent or it used the actual sound from what was shot. That is, if we’re ignoring my out-there belief that all moving image products are documentary to a degree. But as with many other classic docs of the past, it’s nice to see it influencing pop culture art forms in both content and style.
The Way Things Go is currently showing at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art through September 29 and it’s probably being exhibited elsewhere right now, as well. You can buy the DVD from Icarus Films here.
For next week’s Documentary Classic review, I’ll be taking on Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1993 Oscar-winner The War Room, which is available on DVD and online via iTunes, Hulu Plus and Amazon Instant Video.