Extreme Inefficiency of the Rube Goldberg Machine: Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go


everything’s more or less
rube goldberg

—Larry Eigner

The video above is only a short clip from a 1987 thirty-minute film of a Rube Goldberg machine that Peter Fischli and David Weiss constructed from ordinary objects such as tires, candles, fuses, tape, bottles, boards, rags, and chemicals—stuff that one might find lying around in a garage or basement workshop.

I thought it would be interesting to compare their machine with those entered in Rube Goldberg machine contests, such as the Japanese television show Pythagora Switch or the student competition at Purdue University, first held in 1947 and now in its twenty-second consecutive year (Townsend). The comparison might lead to some revelations about The Way Things Go by showing what it is not.

The element of competition, of course, creates an aura of sensationalism as the camera follows one event to the next. The souped-up hype of the Japanese announcer tries to increase suspense about whether the machine will move like clockwork until the final goal of the exercise in inefficiency is accomplished (cracking an egg into a dish, for example), or whether the machine will grind to a halt due to a broken link.

By contrast, The Way Things Go is not particularly suspenseful: early on in the film one can guess that this will be a documentation of a fully functioning machine. This lack of emphasis on suspense allows the viewer to concentrate on the metaphysics of causality and not on the relatively mundane thrill of nervous anticipation similiar to the car chase in an action/adventure film: will the chain of events set in motion by the car chase enable the hero to save the world and rescue the woman?

Also, Fischli and Weiss’s machine runs rather slowly in comparison to the relatively hyperactive machines in the competitions, which must hold the attention of a live audience:

The slower speed of The Way Things Go is partly a result of the larger scale of the machine, which the two men built in a warehouse. There is an expansiveness about the documented events that enables the viewer more time to meditate on the implications of such extreme inefficiency.

For me, the most compelling difference that sets Fischli and Weiss’s machine apart from the contest machines lies in its relatively nonrepresentational quality. In the case of the Purdue competition, points are awarded for the machine’s theme, for example, Jurassic Park, or this one based on the board game Clue:



But The Way Things Go is qualitatively very different from these examples. The causal connections are ingenious—that goes with the territory of constructing an imaginative machine of extreme inefficiency. Sometimes they are humorous, sometimes beautiful (the flaming cloth torch spiraling down a little pole like a blazing volleyball is particularly compelling aesthetically). Yet they never slide into preciosity with overt references to symbols (such as an arrow shooting a heart) or a doll-house-like miniature reality (such as a ski lift). The events in the causal chain remain fairly abstract. In the machine, things often do what they are intended to do in the real world (tires roll, catapults hurl objects, a torch sets a pile of straw ablaze), but these agents of change are less likely to remind the viewer of the experience of actual causal sequences beyond a single link in the sequence: the elements in the chain are fairly unrelated representationally.

This abstract quality of the machine allows the focus to remain on the idea of one thing causing another to do something—the “way things go.” This focus facilitates a wider field of possible associations as one wonders, What triggers catastrophes in the world? A war is started over a casual insult blown out of proportion, setting off a chain of events ending in mass slaughter. Chaos theory’s “butterfly effect” asks the question, poetically expressed in the title of a talk by Edward Lorenz, whether “the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil [can] set off a tornado in Texas.”

And there are countless other small “catastrophes” in the world that go on without our being aware of their processual underpinnings. For example, the sequence of events that results in a person seeing something is incredibly complicated. In The Amazing Brain, Robert Ornstein and Richard F. Thompson present a simplified illustrated tour of the process of vision, demonstrating the complex sequence of events that must happen in order for David to recognize his mother, who has come to visit him on his marble plinth:

How Vision Works 1

In a more than twenty-page guided tour that is reminiscent of a Rube Goldberg machine, the authors show the step-by-step process of sight, from an image entering the pupil to the inversion of the image by the lens, the projection of the image onto the retina, and the transmission of that information via the optic nerve to the visual cortex, where a complex system of layers and columns and neurons analyzes the information. After further complex processing in the brain, David recognizes his mother and smiles:



The authors point out that their “greatly simplified tour of an incredibly complex chain of events has taken as least several thousand times longer to read than the fraction of a second in which the actual event occurred” (129). Indeed, if humans had to be conscious of every decision that their bodies made, they would soon perish. Seeing a rhino about to charge  doesn’t suddenly turn a person into a philosopher but a runner. Through evolution, adaptive changes are selected that allow many functions and processes to take place routinely and unconsciously. Similarly, Fischli and Weiss’s machine suggests the complex network of events that lie beneath the surface of what we perceive to be a single, simple event.

And the events in their film also suggest the moment at which an object being changed reaches the point of no return: the “straw that broke the camel’s back” phenomenon. Within Fishli and Weiss’s delicately precise sequence, the point at which cause becomes effect can be identified or at least imagined. For example, sparks from fireworks shoot into the air, but only one spark is needed to travel far enough set afire the pool of gasoline a few feet away. Water pouring into a jar gradually fills it up, and the added weight of the jar causes the lever upon which it rests to move down. We can imagine that only a drop is needed to make the difference between stasis and motion. I’m reminded of the field of catastrophe theory, which studies small changes in a dynamic system resulting in large consequences.

The insights and pleasures of The Way Things Go are at once aesthetic, scientific, and metaphysical. The rough ordinariness of the objects draws our attention to the mundane phenomenon of causality that we take for granted on so many levels of our lives. There is a hypnotic beauty in the slow unfolding of events. And the abstract little machines within the larger machine facilitate meditation on the very nature of causality. I’m reminded of Galileo’s early experiments on gravity, such as the Inclined Plane Ball:

Galileo - Inclined Plane Ball

I imagine that a physicist would have many more layers of understanding of The Way Things Go.

Buddhist philosophy as well as science has a history of focused meditation on the nature of cause and effect. Nagarjuna, for example, a third century precursor of late twentieth-century deconstructionist philosophy, posits that causality is an illusion, since there is no essential quality of cause or effect residing in any particular agent of change.

And that brings me to the larger theme of the film: change, ephemerality. The chain moves from one event to the next in a seemingly endless series that explores the nature of change and, by extension, mortality. In a Rube Goldberg machine, as in a dominoes chain reaction, there is no going back. And the way things go is inexorably forward (to use a conceptual metaphor of time moving ahead of us). And since the links in the chain are displaced or destroyed in their implementation, the machine can be recreated only by constructing the machine afresh. The film evokes the trajectory and cycle of life, full of inefficiencies and absurdities, and shot through with the certainty of change.

Works Cited

Eigner, Larry. “Complexities (October 9 91).” readiness / enough / depends / on. Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000. n.p.

Ornstein, Robert, and Richard F. Thompson. Illus. David Macaulay. The Amazing Brain. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.

Townsend, Allie. “Rube Goldberg Machines Go Green at Indiana-Based Contest.” Popular Mechanics. March 31, 2009. http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/research/4311263.html

Camille Martin

One response to “Extreme Inefficiency of the Rube Goldberg Machine: Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s The Way Things Go

  1. Pingback: Fischli & Weiss Work Research | fischli and weiss g6

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