Drowning by Numbers

It’s early on a Sunday night, late October, in Berkeley, California. The forecasted rain shows no sign of materializing and I am feeling relatively unburdened.

“Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos.”

Peter Greenaway

It’s early on a Sunday night, late October, in Berkeley, California. The forecasted rain shows no sign of materializing and I am feeling relatively unburdened. I have a sitter for the evening. The depression I have been battling daily since September is showing slow signs of receding, and I am counting hardly anything at all. Not the individual squares of sidewalk concrete as I walk down College Avenue, not the sawed-off parking meters, not the people wearing red in line ahead of me when I stop at the Cafe Roma for coffee. I am not compulsively seeking out patterns in the world around me, not imbuing any patterns I do hazard to notice with negative meanings or associating them with one fatalistic outcome or another.

I am on my way to the movies, alone, in part because my relationship is again in its cyclical trouble, but primarily because the movie is one of the CineMath Festival features at the Pacific Film Archive. CineMath is hosted by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at UC Berkeley, and not to put too fine a point on it, it’s a rendezvous of misfits. Tonight’s program is “Drowning by Numbers,” a 1988 film directed by the Welsh-born Peter Greenaway, best known in the United States for his film “The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989). By oversight, I haven’t seen “Drowning by Numbers,” even though it is often likened to my two favorite Greenaway films, the cult classic “A Zed and Two Noughts” (1985) and “Vertical Remake” (1978).

The night’s showing of “Drowning by Numbers” is being introduced by Dr. David Bayer, a tenured professor of mathematics at Barnard College, Columbia University. At the podium in the front of the theater, he looks strangely unlike a mathematician, with his long, sandy-blond hair and wearing a casually expensive shirt and shoes purchased from an upscale outdoor retailer. Dr. Bayer has written extensively; I have read almost nothing he has written except an early 1990s co-authored article about Hilbert Functions. He (Dr. Bayer, not Hilbert) has since become well known outside of mathematic circles, as well, owing to his role as the mathematics consultant on Ron Howard’s recent and grossly fictionalized film chronicle of the life of schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash, “A Beautiful Mind.” Rumor has it that Dr. Bayer was also the hand double for Russell Crowe, but I can’t swear to that in writing. However, the movie credits list him in his five-minutes-of-fame cameo as one of the film’s Pen Ceremony professors.

As Dr. Bayer begins to speak, a respectful hush falls over the theater. He introduces “Drowning by Numbers,” explaining how Greenaway has inserted the numbers 1 though 100, sequentially, throughout the film, perhaps, he speculates, to enhance the dreamlike or hypnotic quality of the film (as in: Count backward from 10, and when I clap, you will awaken). He holds up two bottles of wine, one red and one white, and thumb-ruffles a stack of fake hundred-dollar bills at the audience, informing us that he has purchased these items for a little game we are going to play when the movie is over. We are asked to mentally keep track of any numbers and their locations that we see and that we think others in the audience will miss, during the film. After the screening, we will have a chance to win the wine by correctly identifying this information. When he calls on an audience member, Dr. Bayer explains, that person will have the opportunity to state a number and its location. The rest of the audience will be given a chance to challenge that person. If a correctly identified number/ location goes unchallenged, the person holding the information is awarded a fake hundred-dollar bill. If the person is challenged, and both people know the location of a given number, neither is rewarded. When the audience is out of numbers, an auction will be held for the wine, using the fake currency.

Actuarial tables tell us that the average person can remember three items after five minutes, and most can remember the same three items after an hour passes. I know this to a factual certainty because I am a psychologist by training, and some days, by inclination. I also know that a mentally unimpaired person can, in a test called “serial sevens,” count backward from 100 by sevens in under a minute with fewer that four errors. What I don’t remember anymore is what exactly it implies if a person can’t correctly identify the three items or count backward from 100. This information has faded into the void of arcane knowledge, while the numbers have stayed at the forefront.

Before the house lights are lowered, I take stock of the theater. The new, clean, airy Pacific Film Archive has 24 rows of purple seats, with approximately four people per row in attendance, for a total of around 96 people. Since I don’t have a calculator with me, I round up the N to 100 and calculate the probabilities. Allowing for the fact that most people in the audience have some connection to mathematics, I increase the mean of remembered items from three to five and conclude that I need to correctly identify the location of eight numbers in the film to fall safely outside of two standard deviations. Given this eight, I also calculate, as a failsafe, the likelihood that any one of the other 100 patrons will randomly pick the same eight numbers I chose; the odds are slight, although, unlike the chance of winning the California Lottery, not minuscule. I’m confident that I could easily remember eight numbers and their corresponding locations, but I decide that, just for the sake of surety, I will come up with a preexisting numeric pattern, so I don’t have to bother remembering the numbers, only their sequential locations. Here’s what I decide: The first number I see that I think others in the audience might miss, followed by the next seven consecutive prime numbers. It’s parsimonious, nothing fancy, but it should suffice.

“Drowning by Numbers” begins with a young girl, inexplicably dressed in a satin ball gown, jumping rope in the street while counting 100 stars: l, Antares, through 100, Electra. The girl’s mother, played by an ethereal transvestite, watches forlornly from an upstairs window; the audience understands that she can’t fully reach her daughter. The girl stops at 100, telling us later in the movie that once you count to 100, the next 100 are just the same. As in all Greenaway movies, certain themes are pivotal: adultery, exploitation, revenge, death, pornography, the fear of water. The story, succinctly, is about three women, all with the same name (perhaps representing the convergent moment of past, present and future), who murder their respective husbands. They are aided in subterfuging punishment by the local coroner, Madgett, who attempts to exact payment from them of an amorous nature. Madgett’s young son, Smut, is obsessed with death and games, and over the course of the movie, develops 10 complicated games, which are briefly elucidated for the audience. My personal favorite is the sheep-savant game, Sheep and Tides. In this game, nine sheep are tethered to chairs on which sit cups and saucers. As sheep are especially sensitive to the exact moment of the turn of the tide, when the tide turns, they pull on the tethers and rattle the cups. Bets are taken on any line combination of three sheep first to rattle their cups, read vertically, horizontally or diagonally (much like tic-tac-toe). As there are three tide turns every 24 hours, the best of three results is taken.

The first number fitting my criterion comes early in the movie. It’s the 8, flashing almost unnoticeably by on a digital alarm clock. My numbers will then be 8, 11, 13, 17, 19, 23, 29 and 31; relying on this sequence, I will need only to remember, in order, eight locations. Also, I notice that 4 and 5 are spoken and decide to count the spoken numbers as well, an easy task since these don’t require remembering a corresponding location. The spoken numbers in the film are 4, 5, 10, 24-28, 34, 35, 41, 48, 51, 52, 54, 58, 72, 75 and 86.

Counting objects is rarely a benign phenomenon. Like Smut in the film, I have had a complicated relationship with counting my entire life. As is the case with other compulsions, people who are driven to count are mocked by the knowledge that it is neither useful nor appropriate. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t sometimes come in handy. For instance, I never lose money at my sister-in-law’s annual poker game; my grandfather, realizing my “potential” at an early age, taught me to count cards and would take me across the state line to Reno, where we would play 21 at consecutive green-velvet-covered tables, never staying too long at one casino. But far more often, counting is an emotional liability, and I struggle to get out from under its sway. Counting robs you of the ability to live with your feet firmly planted in the present; it forces you always, uncomfortably, into the future, seeking the next number, the next object in an infinite sequence.

The movie ends, one hour and 48 minutes later, with the boy, Smut, narrating the 10th game, the End Game. The object of this game, he tells us, is to dare to fall with a noose around your neck from a place high enough off the ground that a fall from it will hang you. This will serve to punish those who have caused you great unhappiness by their selfish actions. It is the best game of all, Smut concludes, because the winner is also the loser and the judge’s decision is always final.

Sitting four rows behind me is a man. He’s blond, clean cut, bespeckled, maybe five years my senior. When called upon by Dr. Bayer, he says with authority, “Eleven.” By the confidence in his voice, I suspect he is a mathematician, rather than a generic Greenaway fan. I also speculate, based on the deliberate crispness with which he says “Eleven” that he, too, has devised a strategy. It could be primes; primes tend to come to mind in these situations. Here’s the problem: Eleven is also in my system, and if his sequence involves primes, we could have additional overlapping numbers. To the extent that the evening has been transformed into a standard zero-sum game between just the two of us, this could bring us both down. I turn all the way around in my chair and say to him, quietly and cryptically, “I have 11, too, and I know where it is.” He looks at me, evaluating my younger age and my gender, which he knows slightly weigh the memory odds in my favor. We reach a tacit agreement about splitting the spoils of war, mathematically locating our own unique Nash Equilibrium in a game of imperfect information, and he makes a gallant gesture with his hands, saying loudly, “Please, be my guest.” Dr. Bayer misses this exchange and calls on me.

“Eleven is on a Polaroid of Smut jumping out of the barn,” I say, in a tone that leaves no room for questions. The man behind me doesn’t challenge me. Dr. Bayer checks his sheet, looks surprised and then a little dismayed as he hands me the fake hundred-dollar bill. Maybe he thinks it’s a better game if we make mistakes or, maybe, like my father, Dr. Bayer is a mathematician who would rather not be troubled with women. My father, amid other dismissals and disappointments, suffered the combined misfortune of having a daughter with potential and a brilliant but severely learning-disabled son. In an era where math and gender were inseparably coiled and a father’s purview was expected to extend to his sons, he was left with a son unable to master even the basic operations, let alone Zermelo’s algorithm, and a daughter with no predictable future.

Dr. Bayer is pointing to another man in the audience, young, Asian, wearing frameless glasses, who says, “Twenty-one.” This product of primes is not in my sequence, but it isn’t hard to shut him down. “Twenty-one is on the yellow door,” I say in a purposely bored voice. Both my father and my grandfather taught me to never underestimate the power of showmanship in disabling an opponent.

When all is said and done, I have an additional 22 numbers, not including the eight in my sequence (alarm clock, Polaroid, side of a barn, marker for a dead cockerel, rabbit hutch, birthday card, matchbox, firework) correctly identified and unchallenged. This includes 15 of the 19 spoken numbers, so it is less impressive than it might seem at first glance. I would have had 23, but I miss number 15, printed on a black-and-white striped cricket pad that I, having never seen a cricket match, misidentify in a challenge as a chair cushion. Dr. Bayer looks pleased at my mistake, and he won’t concede the point. It doesn’t matter, of course, because no one else is even close.

Never a welcher, before the auction starts, I walk four rows back and give the blond man the stack of bills, which he can exchange for the wine. He smiles at me sweetly, with humor, and we both feel satisfied with how we’ve played the game. Winning wine, which I don’t even drink, at a convention of outcasts might seem a small victory, but sometimes it is just not about the prize, what is won or lost. It’s only about reminding yourself you’re visible—making yourself real through someone else’s recognition. As I leave the lobby, an attractive older woman with dyed-blond hair and a thick German accent congratulates me, saying, “You are really good!” I consider telling her that my performance, like much in life, was a simple game of calculated probabilities, a chimera, the same way that the odds of dying on your birthday are exactly the same as dying on any other given day of the year, or the way that the likelihood of one particular lover leaving you is completely independent of the actions of the lovers that came before, mathematically speaking. But I, maybe more than anyone except for Smut, know the consequences of letting math suck the air out of a life, so I keep silent, letting the woman continue to think there was something more magical to it.

About the Author

Erica Crowell

Erica Crowell lives in Richmond, Calif., with her daughter and poodle. She is writing a brief biography of psychoanalyst Otto Will and a novella based on the life of Indian mathematician S.

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