Editor’s Notes: 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars is now out DVD from Kino Lorber.
Relying heavily on interviews with the late Jack Tramiel, 8-Bit Generation: The Commodore Wars means to trace the history of the Commodore 64, arguably the most popular and influential early home computer. Long since outclassed by computers vastly more powerful, the Commodore 64 dominated the 1980s, primarily due to its sound and graphics, and even today its brand recognition is astonishingly high.
The Commodore had a rather inauspicious start, considering where it came from. While in the Army, Tramiel repaired and refurbished typewriters, which lead him to opening his own company in the 1950s called Commodore Business Machines. After typewriters came calculators, then in the 1970s, home computers, eventually leading to the release of the famed Commodore 64 in 1983.
With meandering narration and haphazard choice of interviews, 8-Bit Generation fails to follow the typical structure of a modern documentary, sometimes out of a playful refusal to conform, but more often due to sloppiness. Archival footage is reused and attributed to multiple events, something made even more noticeable by the unsettling lack of footage and photos in the first place. There’s contradictory information and outright mistakes, like when we’re told that everyone could afford a Commodore 64 in the mid 1980s when it sold for $199.00, while they show an ad that clearly lists it for $895.00. The narration at times is gibberish, with sentences like, “Anyway, the geeks market seems like being able to renew itself all the times” completely obscuring the film’s meaning.
Yours truly was brought up on Commodore computers, starting as a wee lass in 1983 when my father, a math teacher who had been taking computer courses since the 1970s, shelled out nearly one thousand large American dollars for a Commodore 64 and 1541 disk drive, which had a mismatched font that made it look like it was a “154i” drive. This started a life-long love affair with their computers, and in fact, my closet in this very office is full of Commodore computers and enough 5 1/4 floppies that I assume my death will involve being crushed under a pile of them.
I am a loyal, unwavering fan of the Commodore computer, yet even I was unable to follow most of 8-Bit Generation’s narrative, which steadfastly and deliberately refuses to explain anything, ever, at any time, without exception. It’s a very 1980s-era nerd thing to do, if we’re being honest, to wonder how everyone in the world can’t understand computers the way you do, and to filter that confusion into an attitude that comes down to, “Hey, if you don’t already know what a sprite or a dongle or a SID chip is, then by god, you don’t deserve to know.”
Some of us chose to grow out of that reflexive attempt to make ourselves feel superior, a few were forced to grow out of it, but some made a career on it, including, apparently, this documentary’s creators and contributors, who spend much of the film indulging in a questionable running theme where they compares themselves to samurai. 8-Bit Generation accidentally gives us a glimpse into this tiny world full of self-aggrandizing, scattered and disaffected men, still unsure of their place in society after all this time, even though they’re participating in a film mean to define that very thing.
The dissonance is unintentional but strangely moving. Many of the interviewees are real characters, though the film goes to great pains to hide this, as though it was a self-conscious kid worried that it might get the wrong kind of attention. The engineers and innovators, compared incessantly to Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo, alternate between talking up the Commodore as though they were still on commission and using their time in front of the camera for an airing of grievances.
And despite all the years of hindsight, despite being undeniably important and influential, despite all the work and effort of everyone involved, they still can’t manage to accurately place themselves within the context of the computer revolution. Their attempt to relate the wacky history of the Commodore 64 instead revealed the mostly hidden segment of society where computer artistry, cutthroat business tactics, advanced technology and commercialism intersect, and showed it to be a thoroughly unpleasant place.