Lesson #403: Shephard Tones

I finally got around to watching Dunkirk today. It’s stressful. But it’s beautifully made, and there was a variation on Elgar’s ‘Nimrod‘.* Which mostly drove me crazy by pretending to be Nimrod, very slowly, for a bar or two, without ever becoming Nimrod. In looking it up later, I learned that it wasn’t actually Nimrod, which mostly exonerated it.**

Anyway, one of the way that your blood pressure gets ratcheted up in this film is the Shepard tone. Identified by cognitive scientist Roger Shepard, the Shepard tone is an auditory illusion that gives the listener the sense of a perpetually rising tone without ever actually rising. Using overlapping tones, as the scale rises the top end fades out and allows the bottom tone to pick back up very quietly as the other pitches continue to rise. It’s sort of like a round of, say, Frere Jacques, where after you’ve finished the line “ding dang dong”, you pick back up at the top of the round with “Frere Jacques” while your friend moves into the “ding dang dong” line. While this is happening, you’re quieter in the initial “Frere Jacques” and the ultimate “ding dang dong” lines, and louder in the middle “dormez-vous” and “sonnez les matines” lines. The Shepard tone is a more uniform and linear version of this idea that tricks your brain into thinking it’s continually climbing. The effect of that is a sense of mounting tension, and Dunkirk‘s composer, Hans Zimmer, uses this masterfully. You can hear it (and the snippets of Elgar) in this piece.

To hear what a Shepard tone sounds like in isolation, listen here.

For more on the theory of the Shepard tone from some BBC scientist types, see here.

Come back tomorrow. We’ll look at the history of Dunkirk, about which all of my understanding is drawn from both this film and the absolutely gorgeous tracking shot in Atonement (one of three films that affected me so intensely I will never watch them again***).

*We’ve previously discussed this very piece of music.

**It is, however, a brilliant choice of music for people familiar with the wave of Elgar’s (posthumous — he died in 1934) popularity in England at the time.

***The other two are Grave of the Fireflies and Blue Valentine. Atonement is a train wreck you see coming, but can do nothing to stop, and the consequences are soul-crushing. Grave of the Fireflies is slit-your-wrists depressing, and Blue Valentine is watching a relationship slowly unravel.

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An Addendum to Lesson #161: In Which I Attend My First Drive-In Movie(s)

A year(ish) ago, I wrote a post about drive-ins and mentioned that I’d never been to one, despite having had plenty of opportunity in my teenaged years (and later, when I lived in a southern state) to do so.

With Cowboys & Aliens opening yesterday, I sent my movie-watching friend an email on Tuesday saying only, “Cowboys, aliens, you, me and beer?” She countered with a suggestion of hitting the local drive-in (in other news, we have a local drive-in) for a triple header involving Captain America and two other movies I didn’t like anywhere near as much.

Drive in? YES!

The friend I went with had also never been to the drive-in, so when we got there and discovered that there were swingsets near the screen, we both geeked out hard on the “IT’S JUST LIKE IN GREASE!” aspect of it. Because for both of us, the drive-in scene in Grease is about the only reference point we have to drive-ins.*

*Don’t judge me!

Lesson #215: The Colts Band

Autobiographical Note: Years ago, when we were still in college and he was working as a freelancer, my best friend took me with him on an assignment involving the legendary Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas after which, he introduced me to him. That remains one of the highlights of my time in college.*

I mentioned to my best friend at some point during the World Cup that I’d watched the ESPN 30 for 30 episode “The Two Escobars” about Pablo Escobar (the drug kingpin), Andres Escobar (the late footballer) and Colombia’s surprising run at the World Cup in 1994 and that I’d found it really, really interesting and he told me I had to watch “The Band That Wouldn’t Die.” So that’s what we did tonight…because we both love sports, documentaries and the city of Baltimore.

It turns out the Colts band was instrumental in taking football back to Baltimore. After Irsay literally took the Colts away in the middle of the night in March 1984, the band kept playing. Not only did they keep playing, they played halftime shows for teams in the NFL that were not their own. In the end, when the NFL expanded again in 1997, they were the driving force behind getting the Ravens to Baltimore.

There is still a bitter undertone in Baltimore about the departure of their football team in the middle of the night. Still. Even though they now have a football team and even though that team won the Superbowl while I was in college. However, until I saw this documentary, I had no idea how much of a football history there is in Baltimore.**

*When we were talking about it, he admitted that at the time, he didn’t realize how important Johnny Unitas was to Baltimore. It was only after Unitas died that he really understood. I, despite being a poor American football fan, somehow had a deep understanding of Unitas’ importance to Baltimore — possibly because of my internship at a sports radio station, my family’s connection to the town and team or both — and was beside myself over this opportunity that I only today discovered was a 13-week engagement for my best friend.

**I’m not really that much of an American football fan, to be honest, so the Ravens were always just the other team after the Orioles, who are my baseball team.

Lesson #161: Drive-ins

My brother called from Boston last night to work out a few details about my impending move/visit to see him as I pass through. Somehow in the course of our hour long conversation, we got onto the subject of movies. He and his wife went to the drive-in last night to see Iron Man, which he recommended — I saw in Jerusalem — and Shrek 4, which he thought was stupid — which I had guessed from the previews. I have never been been to the drive-in.

Somewhere years ago, I heard that there were only about 50 operational drive-ins remaining in the United States. This was probably around the time my friends and I went apple picking in the backwoods of Maryland one weekend and ended up making friends with the owner of the local drive-in. Somewhere, there are pictures. That place is shut down now. It might even have been shut down then, but the screen was still there as was the little cafe next to it where we had lunch.

Imagine my surprise when I decided to go see what I could find out about drive-ins now and discovered that there is a whole website dedicated to telling you where to go, should you want to go. According to said website, there are 374 drive-ins operating in 47 states (all but Alaska, Delaware and Louisiana) and 66 across Canada.

The highest concentration of drive-ins run across the steel belt: Pennsylvania has the most active drive-ins with 34, followed by Ohio which has 30 and Indiana rounds out the top four with 20.* I don’t know if this says something in particular or if it’s just a coincidence.

1958 was the peak year for the popularity of the drive-in with 4063 open theatres, including 382 in Texas alone.** Popularity began to wane in 1959 and plateaued for a few years in the late 60s and early 70s (between 1967 and 1972, the number of drive-ins slid only from 3384 to 3342)*** before falling again. The downfall was fairly consistent until the mid-1980s when the number of drive-ins was reduced by 25% to 999 in 1986, the first time the number had been under 1000 since 1948 when there were 820. There was a continued slow decline in the 1990s and the numbers leveled off in the 2000s with more or less 400 open drive-ins.

Your Jeopardy trivia tidbit for the day: The first drive-in was opened in Camden, New Jersey in June 1933.

*New York is third with 29.

**I’ve lived in Texas; somehow this makes perfect sense.

***As a historian, I find this very interesting because these were the peak years of global revolutionary fervour and in the US, anti-war sentiment.

Lesson #109: Durham Athletic Park

Today was the day. Bull Durham Day 2010.* Every single one of my sporting friends watches this movie as a sort of spring tradition. Every year around the time that the baseball season gets underway, we break out Bull Durham.

And in honour of the film, it’s time to take a look at Durham Athletic Park.

Durham Athletic Park was opened in 1939, though there had been a park in existence on the location from 1926. It burned down in early 1939, which is really not all that uncommon for a ballpark at that time period.** Anyway…the park was decommissioned in 1995 when the Bulls moved to Durham Bulls Athletic Park (which incidentally was designed by the same guys who designed the home stadium of my team, the Baltimore Orioles). Its measurements were 330 to left, 410 to centre and 305 to right field and the park had a capacity of 5000.*** From 1938 – 1943, the park was home to the Durham Bulls of the Piedmont League and then from 1945 – 1967 and from 1980 – 1994 of the Carolina League. From 1945-1967, the Bulls were affiliates of the Tigers, Astros and Mets, but from 1980 until 1997 (three years after the Bulls moved to their new park), they were affiliated with the Atlanta Braves. The ballpark currently still stands, but is no longer in regular use.****

Autobiographical note: I love Bull Durham more than any other sports movie in existence. Not just because of the impending start of the baseball season, but because I truly love baseball. The movie is 20+ years old, but baseball is still the same. I spent some of the best summers of my life working in the minor leagues and even though this movie was released when I was 8, it illustrates perfectly what that life is. I have known those guys and I have been in those dive bars and I have slid on the tarp during rain storms. I enjoy major league baseball in the same way that I enjoy any professional sport of which I’m a fan, but I love minor league baseball because it’s not about ridiculous ticket prices and $8 beers; it’s about families having a great time at the park and guys who would be Joe Hardy.

*I love my friends. I posted on my Facebook update that in the craziness of my mid-week (my best friend’s birthday and Desmond’s long-awaited return on LOST on Tuesday, my friend’s return to the city and Rocky Horror with my housemates on Wednesday and last night’s catching up and return trip to Rocky Horror — the stage manager in me refuses to see a good show just once…there’s a fascination in finding the details) I had forgotten that today was the day that Bull Durham got pulled out and a bunch of my sport guys went “wait, there’s an official day for this?!?” and seemed horrified that they didn’t know about this event. I had to reassure them that it was not, in fact, an official day, just the day that a friend and I had decided we’d watch it.

**Parks in those days, unless they were new, were made mostly of wood. I mean, the famed Orioles player-manager John McGraw (and a Boston Beaneaters player) essentially burned Boston’s South End Grounds to the ground when they started a riot in 1894. Incidentally, this is a fact I knew offhand. Yes, I know *way* too much about baseball history.

***The first minor league baseball park I ever worked in measured 330 down both lines and 392 to centre with about a 4500 (ish) capacity.

****For more information, see here and here.