8-BIT GENERATION: THE COMMODORE WARS

(The intriguing doc 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars is also making an intriguing attempt at distribution by releasing directly on video game platform Steam on December 20.)

For those with a sharp attention span and a deep and abiding interest in how our modern personal-computer (PC) age got started, 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars is sure to delight. Chock full of rich details on the history of Commodore Business Machines – founded in 1954 as a typewriter company but eventually evolving into the developer of the “best selling computer in history,” the Commodore 64, released in 1982 – this dense documentary is a wonderful companion piece to another fascinating technology-based film which came out earlier this year, Silicon Cowboys, which told the story of Compaq. Taken together, both films remind us that there was more to our recent past than a choice between Mac and PC. Indeed, it was Commodore that most effectively started putting a computer in every home. My first PC was, in fact, the Commodore 64.

Narrated by computer engineer Bil Herd – formerly of Commodore, so he is both our guide and one of the film’s subjects – 8-Bit Generation focuses on Jack Tramiel, founder of the company and the man whose business acumen and vision led to Commodore’s phenomenal success. Eventually, like Steve Jobs, he was defeated by his own Board of Directors, but he remains very much alive and proud of his achievements (as he should be). If the film sometimes tips a little too close towards hagiography, it makes up for that by not shying away from the man’s ruthlessness, as well. Besides, how can we not appreciate an entrepreneur whose guiding mantra was “computers for the masses, not the classes,” even if he simultaneously declared that “business is war” and was not afraid to destroy his competitors? For him, a survivor of Auschwitz, it was always more about building a successful company (and community), rather than just making money. Now that’s a business model to believe in.

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If the film has a weakness, it’s the very thing that is also a source of its strength, which is its density. There is just so much information that comes at us in rapid-fire fashion, that it can be hard to remember it all: there are so many names and faces to keep straight. In addition, the filmmakers do something with their talking-head interviews that we don’t usually see, which is to jump-cut within them (to remove pauses), using micro-dissolves to smooth the transitions. The normal convention is to cut to other footage when chopping up an interview in this way. One gets used to the technique, and it stops being a distraction, but I haven’t yet made up mind as to whether I like it or not. Beyond that, the movie is pleasantly flashy in its amalgam of formats and kinds of footage, mixing archival material with well-spun graphics. Overall, then, it’s an engaging tribute to a history that most of us have forgotten, if we ever knew, and well worth watching, for computer nerds and techno-novices alike. After all, who doesn’t use computing technology in some way? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how we got here? I think so.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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