I’m a little weary and preoccupied (and maybe a little tipsy) at the moment this posts. There is a documentary out there in the world that helps explain why. This was my stab at reviewing the film shortly after seeing it for the first time.
Every April the college radio station in Stevens Point, Wisconsin mounts a 54-hour on-air trivia contest as a fundraiser. The event regularly draws over 11,000 participants, especially significant since this is a community with a population just under 25,000, which provides some idea of how thoroughly the contest takes over the city during the weekend it takes place. Years ago, it was designated as the “world’s largest trivia contest,” a title no one has ever really stepped up to dispute. The new documentary Triviatown is largely about some of the teams that make this descent into minutiae a yearly ritual.
It’s extremely difficult for me to evaluate Triviatown as a piece of filmmaking. One way or another, I’ve been deeply involved with this trivia contest for about eighteen years. I fully understand the rigors of helping to organize and stage the event, and I’ve experienced every one of the strange, particular energies inherent with being a player. Everything onscreen produces an emotional response, regardless of how adeptly the filmmakers have portrayed it. It’s like watching a film adapted from a family photo album.
Oh, and I’m actually in it. Luckily, it’s fairly brief and I seem fairly lucid. Unlike one of my teammates, I managed to keep my pants on, so that’s a relief. To a degree it doesn’t matter, though. I could be enagaged in oration that was positive Churchillian, but the mere fact that the movie screen is briefly serving as a sort of mirror is enough to send me crawling under my chair.
The documentary is very much in the mode of Wordplay, the film from earlier this year that spends ample time depicting the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament and those who lavish in letting their puzzle solving slip over into the realm of obsession. Triviatown is equally concerned with the ins and outs and twists and turns of the cognitive competition and picks out a handful of teams to carry the narrative. As opposed to the crossword battle between individuals, participants in the Stevens Point trivia contest assemble into teams, usually using the event as a sort of makeshift reunion weekend for family members and old friends. While the different teams generally have a few things in common–some computers, stacks of books–the style of play ranges from businesslike to raucous. The film revels in contrasting the serious, focused approach of Network, a team largely comprised of old high school buddies that has absolutely dominated the contest over the years, to that of The Cakers, a collection of radio station alumni usually shown dancing wildly or consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol, seemingly oblivious to the fact that people are reading questions on the radio.
Yeah, I should probably note here that I’m on that second team.
Directors Patrick Cady and Brit McAdams effectively capture everything that any Trivia maven would want to see. They catch moments of narrowly missed questions and breakneck attempts to get an answer called in before the musically-dictated time limit (teams have the length of two relatively short songs to call the radio station). There are controversies, weird behavior, mass collections of people scrambling for information, and tales of team lore that will be familiar to anyone who has slogged their way through the hundreds of queries that parade out of speakers during the course of the weekend. But I wonder how much appeal it will have to those whose knowledge of the event derives strictly from this film. Never mind Peoria, will it play anywhere outside of Triviatown itself? I have my doubts. Time spent on side stories like teams who violate the rules by sharing answers or the dueling admiration and resentment of the top team may push all the hot buttons of the faithful, but I’m less convinced it will keep the average viewer engaged.
It’s worth noting that the station itself is almost a non-presence in the film. That certainly makes some sense; you don’t see them spending a lot of time in Wordplay focusing on how the Stamford Marriott prepares for the crossword tournment. Besides, with over three decades of learned lessons passed down to the students who make it happen they’re approaching that fabled clockwork comparison, although when you’re largely dealing with amateur broadcasters, it can get a little hairy at times. Leaving that aspect on the cutting room floor is understandable, but as someone who remembers what it’s like to have your contributions largely ignored by the teams picking up their trophies, it would have been nice to hear a few more student voices.
To a large degree, these reservations are pure guesswork on my part. I’m far too close to the pasttime held up for inspection in Triviatown to accurately gauge how effectively it passes that first test of a documentary: clearly and thoroughly informing filmgoers about some place, event and people that they previously knew nothing about. When a trivia player tells a story about telephoning Bud Somerville, I was completely drawn in, almost in a state of joyous wonderment, as ridiculous as that sounds. What kind of reaction awaits for a future viewer who has no automatic means of relating to the story? I really don’t know, and while I watched the film, I blissfully didn’t care. Triviatown is a spectacular memento of something that means a great deal to me. For that, I am plainly grateful.