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VIVA AMIGA Review: A Pleasant Technology Doc About What Might Have Been

Monday, January 09, 2017 Rob Samuelson

When you meet people in 2017 who describe themselves as geeks or nerds,what they really mean is that they are fans of a particular person, place, thing, or idea. True enthusiasm, the unbridled kind of devotion to a very narrow portion of the planet, tends to be off-putting and alienating -- it’s too intense. That’s the domain of “true geeks.”

Photo credit: Viva Amiga: The Documentary/Facebook

“True geeks” are front and center in documentarian Zach Weddington’s debut, Viva Amiga. This short feature doc (it runs only 62 minutes) chronicles the rise and fall of the Commodore Amiga computers, which were once considered the artist’s alternative to Apple, IBM, and later, the Microsoft-running computing giants of the 1980s and ‘90s. Its demise, described by the film’s interview subjects -- former employees of the company, mostly -- was due to market (and marketing) forces that they say were out of their control. They feel the machines they had built from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s were vastly superior in power and user friendliness to the competition, but it did not have the marketing genius of Steve Jobs’s crew or the boring, big-business-friendly approach of Microsoft. Thus, death.

In that way, Weddington manages to scratch the surface of a fascinating phenomenon in the business world, the central question of, how can a superior product fail? The problem for Viva Amiga is that Weddington only scratches the surface of that question. More than half of the documentary is spent on the rocket-like rise to the top by Amiga and parent company Commodore on the backs of these incredibly geeky programmers, who reminisce on camera with the intensity of a thousand silly suns.

When it comes time to discuss the company’s fall, lip service is paid to how the marketing machine failed to properly translate the computer’s abilities. This machine was able to give then-state-of-the-art video and audio editing techniques to consumers that empowered them to make music -- indeed, the doc briefly showcases modern hobbyists still compete in DJ competitions predicated on the idea of making electronic music solely with Amiga computers -- and it had the same number-crunching ability of a hulking IBM processor. But the film doesn’t show enough of the confusing advertising that bewildered the emerging computer-buying market at the time. There are short glimpses of a bizarre commercial that looked like it took place in a Greek god’s house, with the latest Amiga shooting blindingly white light into the air. Otherwise it’s taken as an article of faith that the marketing arm of the corporation did them in. It feels like a huge chunk of the story has been excised when Weddington cuts from the brief downfall of the company to the current attempts by Amiga enthusiasts to revive the operating system for modern machines.

On the plus side, Viva Amiga is charmingly made for something that is driven almost entirely by talking head interviews. While Amiga programmers like the eternally goofy (in a good way) R.J. Mical discuss the innovations the team made, director Weddington animates whole scenes using Amiga technology. A product launch video from the mid-1980s, involving artist Andy Warhol and Blondie singer Debbie Harry (both cool then, both cool now, perhaps a nod to the artistic aspirations of the computer), appears on CGI-produced monitors like we’re watching it from an Amiga employee’s work station.

Weddington ends the documentary with a brief look at the Amiga revival movement, featuring the DJs mentioned above alongside people who used the computers well past their intended lifespan -- one interviewee says she used an Amiga as her primary computer into 2005, a full decade after the company faded from the market. Some have programmed copycat versions of the operating system and they hold fan convention-style meetings with like-minded individuals in order to devise new hacks for the now-ancient software. Perhaps, some insinuate, these swap meets will produce a revitalization of Amiga, one that will take on Apple and Microsoft as a third option for the public.

That optimism, while probably not entirely based on truth, is what makes Viva Amiga such an appealing little movie. These are likable people proud of what they did, and of what they might do in an undetermined future. Just because the document of their singular obsession occasionally finds itself lurching to conclusions doesn’t take away from that pleasantness entirely.

Director: Zach Weddington
Featuring: Trevor Dickinson, Dave Haynie, R.J. Mical
Rating: Three stars out of five

Available on demand now

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