In a word, yes. Here’s why...
If you haven’t seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, then rent or stream or buy it - now. Ditto that for Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, George Hickenlooper’s ode to the making of a film that should never have made it home. Beset by problems – breakdowns, tropical diseases, accusations of body snatching, large scale drug abuse, too little money, President Marcos’s fleet of disappearing helicopters - Apocalypse Now is famous for being the first film to be filmed entirely on location, in the Philippines, its jungles and waterways the nearest Coppola could get to the real thing: Vietnam.
Anyway, apart from losing (sacking) Harvey Keitel two weeks into production, and his replacement, Martin Sheen, to a heart attack, Coppola had persuaded Marlon Brando to play the film’s mystically violent focus, Colonel Kurtz. Kurtz, you need to know, is a mad bad man. He is a super soldier gone AWOL. He’s erected a bloody and poetic anti-civilisation deep in the jungles of Vietnam. He is a blood drenched lord of very dark and made up places, his followers so in awe of him as to treat him as one would a living god. As such, he was the perfect role for Brando, who at this time, in 1976, was also a slightly mad bad god man. He’d starred in some of the best films ever made. He didn’t care that he’d starred in some of the best films ever made. He said he’d never star in any of the best films that were going to be made: ‘I'm one of those people who believes that if I'm very good in this life I`ll go to France when I die.’ Getting Brando to sign on the dotted line, for a film half way around the world, was some coup.
Or so thought an ecstatic Coppola: if only he’d read the Marlon small print. Brando arrived. He did. But he arrived weighing 300lbs – hardly the lean, keen renegade poetry reading killing machine Coppola’d been looking forward to – and he arrived without having even so much as looked at the script. To say he hadn’t prepared is something of an understatement. Marlon wasn’t sure why he was here. He knew it was for a film about a war, and that he was in it. But Conrad? Heart of Darkness? TS Elliot? The horror? Forget it. Francis, forget it.
So Coppola had another breakdown. Then he gave the crew the week off. Then he sat down and read the script to Marlon, who - in accordance with some sort of a Heideggerian pact with the jungle - had given up on the printed word, books, on symbols in general. Really, in hindsight, it’s all Coppola could do. Be a daddy - to a naughty god. And stop thinking, because what in the world of Marlon Brando was there to think about? Nobody - not even Dennis Hopper, with his mountains of cocaine for interpretive assistance – nobody could make head or tail of what Brando was up to. His gnomic and impenetrable presence was upon the set. There was nothing left to understand. The sun was in the sky. The water was in the river. The trees were in the jungle...
Let’s break for a moment from the sheer and unknowable density that was Marlon Brando circa a Manila summer in 1976, and consider instead a new and equally impossible to understand god: Big Data. Big Data is not a person. Nor is it an actor. But, as we shall see, it possesses many – if not all - of the attributes of Brando at his apocalyptic best. Big Data, to be clear, is defined thus: data sets that are too big – read voluminous, various, complex and difficult to pin down – to be understood by normal data base management systems (DBMs). Now, to be absolutely clear, there has always been big information. The universe is a vast information machine, and humans have been especially successful in turning a tiny portion of it into something they call knowledge. In the same way, Big Data, a subset of the universe, has always been around. Well, since the 1950s. It’s everything you can think of that we do with computers. It’s records, sensing data, its web and clickstream info, it’s documents, spreadsheets, it’s the calls you make, the messages you send, the images and film you upload. Structured, semi-structured, unstructured; it’s pure, massive, growing chunks of information.
And, until recently, we threw it away. The lot. Mostly. Why not? Its purpose was done. Keep it and risk bottlenecks, traffic jams, meltdowns. And anyway, it’s what you do with rubbish, isn’t it? Throw it away. We always knew - as with real-world rubbish - that we could, given the means, recycle the stuff. But how? And what for? And, hell, look at it. Look at it! We’re producing 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day: we were always, everyday, like the Apocalypse Now set, at risk of becoming an enormous, useless bin. So we threw it away, which is what everyone was hoping Coppola might do with Brando. Francis, do what you did to Harvey. He's taking up all the space. Get rid. Get rid. And let’s just remember the good times, eh? A Streetcar Named Desire, The Wild One, all those documents, those pictures, numbers and proofs of purchase.
Course, all this was before Google went and invented MapReduce and made a massive parallel server called Google File Share; before someone copied Google and made Hadoop; before all the other giant boys got in on the act. Cos rubbish, friend, if you know what you’re looking for - if you can recycle it, if you can sell it off - is money. Look. Throw in some very clever maths, make sure that everything happens at top speed and you’ve only gone and made your very own digital Nostradamus, a god, a human trait prediction machine that, like the universe, adjusts itself every few nano seconds. Think of the stock market. This sort of information is solid gold. It might be impossible to understand. It will always grow, move, change, behave badly, but keep it. Keep it. Use it. Sell it. Whatever it is.
Which is exactly what Coppola did: he kept Marlon Brandon. He read to him. He read the genius giant into a fit of wakefulness. Brando may have been the world’s greatest actor, and complex, and various, and unpredictable, and Hollywood may no longer have possessed the DBM with which to understand him, but Coppola – intuitively - was up to it. He was. Hadn’t he just made The Godfather, for Christ sake? The Godfather Part II, for more than Christ’s sake. Give Francis that bloody script. Give Francis a week. Boom: Marlon Brando, on a plate. And so it was, one jungle morning, that Marlon awoke, shaved his scalp and announced that he would just speak whatever lines came into his head. And so it was that Coppola said yes, okay, and a very brilliant film made it home. Solid gold.
And so... a god was tamed. But only temporarily, because don’t forget: Kurtz was, despite us wanting his equivalent for decades to come, Brando’s swan song. He never did anything remotely like it again. He just became bigger, less predictable, more various, super complex. And Big Data? Well, On the Waterfront or Apocalypse Now? Anyone’s guess, I reckon. Anyone’s.