#50 — Triviatown (Patrick Cady and Brit McAdams, 2006).
This documentary focuses on a trivia contest, touted as the world’s largest, which is staged annually by a college radio station in a small central Wisconsin city. In the manner of films like Spellbound (which found its subject with the National Spelling Bee) and Wordplay (generally about crossword solvers, but with an emphasis on an yearly tournament), Triviatown build narratives around the the participants in the contest, finding the drama in the give-and-take of the competition in the year the cameras were rolling, while simultaneously trying to understand what would inspire personal devotion to this odd pastime. There’s clearly ample opportunity to turn this into a vehicle for mockery, holding up the basements full of reference books and the time spent entering the smallest details from television commercials into databases for future use as prime evidence of an appalling social awkwardness. Thankfully, Cady and McAdams resist this temptation, choosing instead to craft their film with an investment in allowing everyone onscreen to maintain their dignity. The tone is not one of disdain, but instead of marveling at the individuals who dedicate themselves to collecting information for little more than a shot at a simple trophy and the local glory that comes with it.
I use the word “thankfully” above not just because I feel refraining from such judgment is a better filmmaking tactic (especially in an era in which the social-justice-through-springtrap-humiliations employed by Sacha Baron Cohen are roundly celebrated), but because, plain and simple, I’m in this damn thing. People play in this contest on teams, and one of the collections of furious answerers is the team that I’ve happily been a part of for fifteen years. Indeed, this team, operating under the peculiar name The Cakers, is one of the central focuses of the film, usually shown in contrast to other squads who take a, shall we say, less celebratory approach in playing the contest. For that reason, it’s fair to say that Triviatown‘s placement on this list is less a celebration of its excellence and more a measure of its personal meaning to me. It is a memento, a scrapbook, a family album. It inspires sentiment and stirs memories. Watching this movie is like visiting my closest, dearest friends.
Still, there is more to the film than that. In fact, most of my favorite passages don’t involve my team at all, though they may be enhanced by my personal knowledge of the contest. It is weirdly thrilling to watch one team call in a high-point answer at the last possible moment after one of their members has raced through parking lots to retrieve a DVD with the vital information from the trunk of her car. And I maintain an unwavering enjoyment of an exhausted player’s story about a mid-contest phone call to a curling champion with Hall of Fame credentials.
Cady and McAdams take great care in laying out the human stories within all this silliness, depicting rivalries, friendships and even familial heartbreak with honesty and patience. In the midst of that, I think they even come upon a fairly profound facet of this contest, really of any event that brings people back to the same place year after year. As these groups reassemble, the film shows the ways in which the reunion is used to preserve a certain part of oneself, a certain place in time. There are many, many different individuals in the film, and I don’t think you discover the occupation of a single one. Instead, there are a lot of stories about high school days and college camaraderie, whatever point in time marks the beginning of the interpersonal relationships that this radio game serves as an excuse for reviving. Even as the trivia questions serve as a sort of nostalgia, often reaching into the past for old jingles and bygone TV shows, so to is participation an attempt to hang onto the best parts of the past: the finest friendships, the most meaningful family relationships, the part of oneself that had time for frivolous things before heavy responsibility started leaning in hard.
The film is about a trivia contest. More accurately, it is about the people who come together in affection, loyalty, joy and convivial hopefulness to play it together. It is they who give the movie, and, for that matter, the contest it is about its deeper meaning.
(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)