Creature Feature

Lauren O'Neill-Butler on early films by Fischli & Weiss

Peter Fischli and David Weiss, The Right Way, 1983, still from a 16-mm color film, 55 minutes.

Six years before their best-known work, the film Der Lauf der Dinge (The Way Things Go) (1987), was completed, the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss created their first, equally charming and humorous films: The Point of Least Resistance (1981) and The Right Way (1983). These 16-mm gems make plain the correspondence between their collaboration, which began in the late 1970s, and the broader teamwork necessitated by the medium. Yet one wonders what the production managers must have thought of the footage, since what characterizes Fischli & Weiss’s work has been its eccentricity, its outlandishness, and how remarkably touching it is. These films foreground several signature elements in their practice: the positing of large philosophical questions; absurd, seemingly pointless acts; an emphasis on leisure and pleasure; and the transformation of everyday life into a spectacle at which one wonders.

The camera meanders alongside the artists, who are dressed in tattered rat and bear costumes, on adventures through and on the back alleys and freeways of Los Angeles and the sublime forests and lakes of the Swiss Alps. The Point of Least Resistance is a nonlinear crime drama wherein the rat and bear attempt to become artists and stumble across a dead body in a LA gallery. Curiously, the animals take the body with them, hoping it will lead to new paths of glory (although the result is more reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction watched after a dose of psilocybin mushrooms). In The Right Way, the duo drift around the Swiss countryside like furry nomads in search of meaningful, primitive experiences—which they then discuss to the point of near imponderability. For example, while gazing at the moon, the bear waxes poetic: “It’s like me. It comes and goes, always on the move, looks at everything. It does what it pleases.”

Their 2006–2007 retrospective at Tate Modern presented the original bear and rat costumes in glass cases that seemed like coffins for characters laid to rest. One gets the feeling that Fischli & Weiss could have made many more films documenting the kind of quixotic adventures presented here, and that the rat and the bear would have analyzed every last detail of them. For now, viewers should be adequately occupied with the questions prompted by these films’ observations until, with a bit of luck, more of the artists’ videos are released on DVD.

Two Films by Peter Fischli and David Weiss is available now on DVD from Icarus Films. For more information, click here.