Trivial Matters

Perhaps you missed the news, but something mildly remarkable—yet largely unremarked-upon—occurred at last Thursday’s announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominees.

That is, David O. Russell’s screwball romantic comedy Silver Linings Playbook became the first movie in 31 years to secure nominations in all four acting categories, with citations for leads Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper and supporting players Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro.

Never in the history of the Oscars has a single film won in all four departments (Silver Linings Playbook is not expected to, either); on only two occasions has a single film won in three (A Streetcar Named Desire and Network).

A much likelier headline on Hollywood’s biggest night, February 24, is for Daniel Day-Lewis to become the first man ever to win three Oscars for performances in leading roles, having won in 1989 for My Left Foot and in 2007 for There Will Be Blood.  Katherine Hepburn won for Lead Actress four times; to date, no man has won more than two.

If all else fails, perhaps Quvenzhané Wallis will win and become the youngest Best Actress in history or, alternatively, Emmanuelle Riva will win and become the oldest.

What does this all mean?  You guessed it:  Not a goddamn thing.

It’s trivia—the little bits of information we have no reason to know or care about, except it’s just too much fun.

Everyone has their area of expertise—the one subject on which their breadth of knowledge is unquestioned and completely out of proportion.

Like Bradley Cooper’s character in Silver Linings Playbook, one of my pet subjects is U.S. presidents.  Whenever I meet a fellow presidential trivia buff, it is only a matter of time before one of us asks the other what the “S” in “Harry S Truman” stood for.  (Answer:  Nothing.)

My inkling is that everyone wants to be a go-to human encyclopedia about something.  To an extent, it doesn’t really matter what it is.  The more obscure, the better—after all, you don’t want too much competition.  Otherwise, you risk being Steve Carell in Little Miss Sunshine, whose claim to fame is being the country’s No. 2 scholar of Marcel Proust.

The reason our obsession with trivia is so vexing, and so interesting, is because it is so meaningless.

For all the fun facts about U.S. presidents I have managed to cram into my head, I am under no illusion that they are of any practical use.  That the Maxwell House slogan “Good to the Last Drop” was coined by Teddy Roosevelt might be amusing, but it tells us absolutely nothing about U.S. history.

I wonder:  Is there some evolutionary reason for this seemingly irrational attraction to the inconsequential?

Dave Barry has expounded at length about the curious way our brains seem wired to store utterly useless information (and really annoying pop songs) at the expense of more pertinent things like credit card information and where we left our keys.

Could the cause of this phenomenon also explain our inclination to memorize frivolous data on purpose?  Are we trying to protect ourselves from seriousness and profundity, from exerting ourselves beyond what is absolutely necessary?

No doubt there is a wealth of research by cognitive scientists that can provide explanations for all of these questions, which I could freely look up at any old time.  But somehow I’m not feeling up to it today.  Too much Oscar trivia to get to.

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