Kickstarted Documentary Chronicles the Rise of the Machines
DIRECTED BY TOMASO WALLISER/2016
STREET DATE: MAY 9, 2017/KINO LORBER
However enthusiastic, an avant-garde montage is no way to tell the tale of the early days of home computing.
Good intentions abound through 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars, a 100-minute documentary that plays more like a measured assemblage than a bona-fide film project. It’s the kind of project that gives every indication of a producer handing over hours of years-old interview footage (most was recorded circa 2010) to a creative editor, with the hard goal of not exceeding a 100 minute running time. Add a few minor insert shots of computers on desks and vintage commercial snippets, and there you go.
Hailing from the early-computer devotees at 8bitgeneration.com, a very nice site devoted to fostering community among likeminded programmers and fans, as well as preserving the history of the tech innovations of Commodore and other early home computing companies, the Kickstarted doc is a bit too caught up in itself for its own good. As a non-techie simply looking to be educated and entertained, I was quickly left in the dust of The Commodore Wars.
The story of the personal computer is an essential history, one absolutely worthy of accurate representation. Likewise, it’s also unquestionably deserving of being told in such a way that both honors the legacy of those who pioneered the rise, and communicates the story effectively to the Everyman.
This recent documentary, newly released to DVD by Kino Lorber, reaches well into the realm of fulfilling the former, managing the honoring, but utterly failing on the latter.
The focus is on touting the accomplishments of the movers and shakers of the Commodore 64 amid a take-no-prisoners corporate culture that resulted in the world’s first $199 home computer, thus putting it ahead of the herd of competitors, and ultimately getting computers into exponentially more households than any single model ever. That’s about the extent of what I can accurately report, as much of the minutia – of which there is plenty – zipped right passed my Luddite ears.
8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars is, unfortunately, a rather frustrating documentary experience. Featuring numerous tech luminaries of the early days of personal computing, (Including Commodore corporate warhorse Jack Tramiel, who makes a lively impression here though he died in 2012; Pong creator Al Alcorn; Chuck Peddle, inventor of the game-changing 6502 microprocessor; and Apple innovator Steve Wozniak) the filmmakers clearly landed the interviews that they needed in order to tell the tale from a variety of high-level insiders’ perspectives. And those perspectives are here, albeit buried in a barrage of unyielding information that Never. Slows. Down.
Overlay the rapid, no-breathing-room editing of the A-roll (the interviews) with arbitrary and repetitive B-roll footage, and you’ve got an eyesore that one needn’t sit in front of a vintage computer screen all day to muster. The audio is no great shakes either, what with the frequent compensatory narration by programmer Bil Herd, clearly more of a techie than a voice over talent, and the distracting low end heavy rumble sound effect that, for whatever reason, occurs every time the film cuts to a Tron-like glowing CGI rendering of a microchip. And it cuts to that all too often.
Also, the musical score fires up a version of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” no fewer than four times. That’s too much in any case, no matter how cool the piece. But this version sounds straight out of The Social Network, one of the greatest films having to do with computer types ever made. That’s at least four times that this movie made me think about a better movie that in it’s own wheelhouse.
That said, there is most certainly an audience for this 8 Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars. It is recommended, with the above reservations in mind, for those who are already knowledgeable of the subject matter, and would find it cool to hear it told from the various horses mouths.
A second film from 8BitGeneration.com, Easy to Learn, Hard to Master: The Fate of Atari is said to be fully funded and on the way soon. Here’s hoping that it demonstrates step up in storytelling quality while maintaining their enthusiasm for the subject matter, the evolution of home computing – something that today permeates every hour of most of our daily lives.
The only significant bonus feature on the DVD, released by Kino Lorber, is a TEDx Talk featuring Jack Tramiel’s son, the more personable Leonard Tramiel, a mover and shaker in the tech field in his own right. This fourteen minute conversation is an inspirational watch, highly recommended.
By the end of the film, I’d heard a lot of information, but failed to process most of it. While not a clear cut case of garbage in/garbage out, I will, without shame, count myself among the casualties of The Commodore Wars.