Poetic Numerals & Probable Systems
Released in 1956, Rythmetic by Evelyn Lambert & Norman McLaren is frequently misinterpreted as a one-dimensional educational film with a bit of humour to keep things entertaining. Numerals and mathematical shapes move in controlled, lyric gestures upon a crisp blue background. Spreading across the screen in geometric patterns, the numbers bump and chafe, spawn anew, and add and subtract themselves in the dance of arithmetic operations. Writing in 1976 for the Canadian Film Institute, Maynard Collins described the film thusly:
“Following the heels of a teaching assignment in India for UNESCO, this amusing non-verbal lecture on the subject of mathematics reveals…feelings about the inadequacies of communication between peoples of different cultures and languages. After toying with several ideas for making a truly international film, [McLaren & Lambert] settled on Arabic numerals as probably the most understood method of communication, far more so than any other alphabet.”
It may be comforting to a viewer grasping at meaning to place such autobiographical motives at the heart of the film, but a serious question arises: would two visionary animators put their talents toward an aim so plain, so didactic?
To attempt to answer the question, we must discard the impulse to place such importance on the life of the artist as source of inspiration, for there are many ways of reading this film. One possible avenue is found in the work of another often misinterpreted Canadian artist, the poet bpNichol.
To scholar Kit Dobson, “the best thing about reading bpNichol is the impossibility of reading bpNichol,” arguing that attempting to read his poems through the lens of personality and personal relationships has “limited how his work might be understood.”
When I first watched Rythmetic, I was instantly struck by the similarity to Nichol’s series of poems “probable systems” that uses cryptarithms (mathematical games with arithmetical operations where numbers are substituted for letters or other symbols) in an attempt to quantify the ephemeral. Take this example from 1974:
probable systems 4
this one’s for james joyce in his worst bummer
= 6 + 1 + 9 + 20 + 8
= 8 + 15 + 16 + 5
We are shown the work of his process and gain access to what Paul Dutton has described as the satisfaction we get from watching someone else’s original thinking. Having proved faith equals hope (literally and not by metaphor), Nichol cleverly illustrates the expressiveness of mathematics for speaking directly to the human experience.
The same emotion is at the heart of Rythmetic. The shapes don’t always follow the rules: they jump, bounce, dart across the screen, and, only after significant effort, settle. At one point, a mutating zero explodes the arithmetic attempting to contain its energy. The symbols police the numerals while the numerals bristle against the strict control.
This is no artless arithmetic. This is the lyric struggle of a life: to define yourself against the rules of a society that you could not help being born into, sometimes with success and sometimes not. Like Nichol’s “probable systems,” Rythmetic “analyses and expresses the unfolding of its own creative process” and invites the viewer to participate in meaning.
Really, though, when has math (or life) ever been simple?
J. A. Brown, T. Trowbridge and J. Szabó, "The poetic metrics of bpNichol," 2009 IEEE Toronto International Conference Science and Technology for Humanity (TIC-STH), Toronto, ON, 2009, pg. 933-938.
Dobson, Kit, "Openings: bpNichol's Ephemera," Open Letter 13, No.8, Ed. Lori Emerson, 2009, pg 9-18.
Nichol, bp, a book of variations: love-zygal-art facts, ed by Stephen Voyce, Coach House Books, Toronto, ON, 2013, pg 176.
Utako, Kurihara, “Norman McLaren’s Animated Film Rythmetic as Temporal Art,” Bigaku (Aesthetics), No. 15, The Japanese Society for Aesthetics, Tokyo, 2011, pg 116-124.