The Bourdain AI furore shouldn’t overshadow an effective, complicated film

Anthony Bourdain was a singularly beloved cultural figure. His death by suicide in 2018 at 61 while filming an episode of his CNN travel series Parts Unknown remains, for many, one of the most tragic and baffling public losses of the past few years. Given the intense connection to the chef turned TV personality felt by his fans, and the shock of his death, Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, a bracing, graceful new documentary on Bourdain that features his inner circle, was going to be met sensitively.

On Friday, news broke that the film-makers used artificial intelligence to simulate the television host’s voice for three lines of synthetic audio. In interviews with the New Yorker and GQ, the film’s director, Morgan Neville, revealed that he fed 10 hours of Bourdain’s voiceovers into an AI model for narration of emails Bourdain wrote, totaling about 45 seconds. Reaction to the news was startlingly, if perhaps predictably angry. Some outright dismissed the film, which grapples with Bourdain’s less palatable qualities – his obsessiveness, his flakiness, his gnawing impostor syndrome.

“When I wrote my review I was not aware that the film-makers had used an AI to deepfake Bourdain’s voice,” tweeted Sean Burns, a film critic from Boston’s WBUR who reviewed the film negatively. “I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”

Others on Twitter, where it was a trending topic, called it “ghoulish”, “a freakishly bad idea”, “awful”.

Neville did not exactly help matters with his comment to the New Yorker that “We can have a documentary ethics panel about it later,” which felt more flippant than considered. Said panel seems pertinent, but not as a verdict of the film. While much of the discussion has focused on the ethics of reanimating a dead person’s voice, the question of AI, in this case, seems like a misdirection. Bourdain wrote the words; we don’t know if he read them aloud, but it’s not synthetic material, nor is it akin to hawking a deceased pop star’s hologram performance for money.

The bigger issue is one of disclosure, both to the audience and to Bourdain’s loved ones. (In response to Neville’s claim in GQ that he checked with Bourdain’s widow and literary executor “just to make sure people were cool with that. And they were like, Tony would have been cool with that,” Bourdain’s ex-wife Ottavia Busia tweeted: “I certainly was NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.”) If you know which lines to look for, you can hear how the AI voice is a touch stiffer, and a twitch higher, than the real one. But to an average viewer, the difference is fudged. You can’t tell – a point that may ultimately come to not matter, as audience comfort levels with synthetic audio shift. As Sam Gregory, a film-maker turned non-profit director on ethical applications of video and technology, pointed out in an interview with Helen Rosner in the New Yorker on the ethics of the AI voice, no one blinks an eye when a narrator in a documentary reads a letter written in the civil war.

The queasy part here was the blending of truth with interpretation of truth, fact with simulation, archive with embellishment. Neville’s obfuscation of the AI voice feels deceptive. But then again, all documentaries bend the lines of reality; audiences just often conveniently forget or ignore the artifice in favor of cohesion and momentum. This is, ironically, so much the subject of Roadrunner – the blurring of person and persona, the bounded portrait on camera and the ambiguous messiness off it, the persistent burden of fame. The AI model of Bourdain’s voice, for three lines, is a questionable artistic choice, for sure. But it’s not an outright transgression that should overshadow a challenging, deeply emotional film.

Roadrunner starts not with Bourdain’s childhood, which is almost entirely glossed over, but his rebirth, of sorts: fame at middle age, thanks to his bestselling memoir Kitchen Confidential, published at 43 in 2000. Bourdain was, we see, at first an awkward, ungainly but eager student of the camera and the world around him. The bulk of the film traces the swift change of his life post-fame. He left cooking, his partner of nearly 30 years, his anonymity. He started hosting for CNN, married again, had a daughter, shifted his addictive personality – an intimidating, exhaustive relentlessness that was once hooked on heroin – to jiujitsu, among other things. He chafed against 250 days a year on the road, against the gulf between the ruggedness of his storytelling and the red carpets of promoting the story, against the role of a traditional TV dad he played in spurts at home.

The last third is dominated by his personal unraveling – pushing away friends, almost leaving the show – and his death. Arguably the more pressing ethical concern is Neville’s decision to not reach out to Asia Argento, the Italian actor/director and Bourdain’s final romantic partner, who is portrayed as the agent of undoing for both the show and Bourdain. Friends and crew recall an emotionally tense shoot in Hong Kong after Bourdain installed Argento as director at the last minute and fired a longtime cinematographer, how his infatuation with Argento seemed manic and adolescent, how angered he was by paparazzi photos of her and another man shortly before his death.

Neville has said that speaking to Argento would have “been painful for a lot of people”. Digging into the final days of Bourdain’s life “instantly just made people want to ask ten more questions”, he told Vulture. “It became this kind of narrative quicksand of “Oh, but then what about this? And how did this happen? It just became this thing that made me feel like I was sinking into this rabbit hole of ‘She said, they said,’ and it just was not the film I wanted to make.”

Still, it’s a lot of focus, words and images on a person who isn’t given the opportunity to speak for herself. It’s also clear that including Argento’s interviews, if she agreed, would have dragged the film into a litigation of Bourdain’s death rather than an exploration of his life. There are no easy answers here, the type Bourdain eschewed while he was alive.

Roadrunner is ultimately an inviting, haunting, unsettling film, which doesn’t hesitate to name the star’s frustrating multitudes. There’s Bourdain the preternaturally magnetic host, Bourdain the giddily infatuated boyfriend, Bourdain the exacting boss and unreliable partner, the unbridled friend who once told confidant David Chang that he wouldn’t be a good father. There’s his unbent curiosity, his zest for a hit of any experience, and a foreboding emptiness. The scene I can’t stop thinking about is a scrap of footage from 2006, while filming a pivotal episode of No Reservations in Lebanon as war erupted between Israel and Hezbollah. Savoring pleasure amid devastation, lost for words, Bourdain simply shakes his head – “there’s no neat way to sum it all up.” There’s no fully cohesive portrait of a person in Roadrunner, maybe never any sense to be made. But there’s plenty to sit with, to consider, and that feels like a tribute well done.

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