Obscure DVD Recommendations

Okay, "obscure" may be exaggerating a bit; perhaps "less well known" is a better way to describe these DVD picks. Like Helvetica: The Documentary, these aren't your typical Saturday night popcorn popping blockbusters. But if you have an interest in any of these subjects, they're worth checking out.

First up is the excellent and extremely comprehensive, BBS: The Documentary by Jason Scott. It took Jason three years and over 200 interviews to assemble the material on the three DVDs included in this package. There's over five-and-a-half hours of content covering topics like the beginning of bulletin board systems, sysops and users, Fidonet, the ANSI Art Scene, hacking, phreaking, anarchy, cracking, and the legal battle over data compression between PKWARE and SEA.

Not only did I used to write bulletin board software (for the Atari 800 and Commodore 64), but I ran a few BBS's in my time. If you grew up in this era, or if you've ever been curious about communication systems that pre-date the internet, you'll appreciate this amazing work. Be sure to check out Jason's www.textfiles.com, and sign-up to be informed about his next project, Get Lamp, a documentary about the history of text adventures (xyzzy, baby!).

Second on my list is TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball. TILT tells the story of Williams Electronic Games and their attempt to save the industry by creating Pinball 2000. The one hour documentary includes numerous interviews, clever graphics, and some old promotional video. You can just imagine an arcade owner receiving a VHS tape from Williams describing this revolutionary new pinball platform! The over three hours of extras included on this two disc set are almost better than the film: from the design of a pinball machine, to a tour of the former Williams pinball factory, to footage of a few unreleased machines. Me? I was a video game addict. But I pumped enough quarters into the occasional pinball machine to enjoy this DVD set. Recommended.

Next up is Change and Motion: Calculus Made Clear, 2nd Edition, one of many titles from The Teaching Company. While I've been interested in the DVDs from this company for a long time, I've never been able to convince myself to spend the money. However, they're in the middle of an "up to 70% off" sale, and that's just the excuse I needed. This particular course contains 24 half hour lectures across four DVDs. Boldly, they claim that this course can teach calculus to someone with a basic understanding of math, and they explain all of the formulas using plain English. As a Technical Evangelist at Microsoft (and PDC2008 Content Owner), I'm always interested in seeing how others convey complex topics. They're picky about their professors, and I'm sure that helps. I've watched about half of the lectures so far, and I'm impressed. Sure, the instruction is a bit dry, but considering the topic, they've done a really good job.

Last, but not least, is an older title called REVOLUTION OS, an 85-minute film that tells the story of the creation of GNU/Linux and the beginning of the Open Source movement. It's been a couple of years since I watched this film, but I remember learning quite a bit. The second disc has over 70 minutes of additional interviews with people like Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman, Bruce Perens, and Rob Malda (of Slashdot fame). As an interesting side note, I used to work for one of the companies that Rob worked for in Holland, Michigan...in the same department. Small world. Anyway, the film provided some good perspective, and for that, I appreciate it.

Are there other relatively obscure or unknown films like this that I'm missing? I'd love some good recommendations!

Comments (4)
  1. Greg Maletic says:

    Hi, Mike–

    I, too, grew up in Michigan (Flint), and got into computers just a bit later than you: in my sixth grade, in 1980. I remember driving down to Southfield with my Dad to take a look at the TI-99/4. (We went for an Atari 800 instead, largely due to Star Raiders.)

    Thanks for the nice write-up…I appreciate it!

    Greg Maletic

    Director, TILT: The Battle to Save Pinball

  2. Rick Harris (of Meijer Fame) says:

    You had an Atari 800 too!  I was their biggest fan for probably a decade, even running the users group in Grand Rapids for a couple years.  I think I had 10 or more different Atari computers – from an 800 to their Falcon and TT030 workstation.  Talk about lack of foresight!  In west MI, my favorite BBS was ETXE in GR.

    Thanks for the DVD recommendations.  I think I’m going to look into the second two.

  3. Russ Rowgo says:

    TRS-80 Color computers were my vice.  I bought 2 during the teen years.  Still remember the awesome smell of a new one fresh out of the box.  I learned assember on it (basic too – of course).  In fact, I made a MIDI interface for its serial port with parts from RS all the way back in ’86.  Ahh the memories – 64K.


    Kalamazoo, MI

  4. Russ Rowgo says:

    Helvetica: The Documentary

    is great.  I’m sure it’s somewhere far to the right in the long tail.


    Kalamazoo, MI

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