The documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” which opened in theatres on Friday, is an angry, elegant, often overwhelmingly emotio

The Ethics of a Deepfake Anthony Bourdain Voice

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2021-07-21 16:00:09

The documentary “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain,” which opened in theatres on Friday, is an angry, elegant, often overwhelmingly emotional chronicle of the late television star’s life and his impact on the people close to him. Directed by Morgan Neville, the film portrays Bourdain as intense, self-loathing, relentlessly driven, preternaturally charismatic, and—in his life and in his death, by suicide, in 2018—a man who both focussed and disturbed the lives of those around him. To craft the film’s narrative, Neville drew on tens of thousands of hours of video footage and audio archives—and, for three particular lines heard in the film, Neville commissioned a software company to make an A.I.-generated version of Bourdain’s voice. News of the synthetic audio, which Neville discussed this past week in interviews with me and with Brett Martin, at GQ, provoked a striking degree of anger and unease among Bourdain’s fans. “Well, this is ghoulish”; “This is awful”; “WTF?!” people said on Twitter, where the fake Bourdain voice became a trending topic. The critic Sean Burns, who had reviewed the documentary negatively, tweeted, “I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”

When I first spoke with Neville, I was surprised to learn about his use of synthetic audio and equally taken aback that he’d chosen not to disclose its presence in his film. He admitted to using the technology for a specific voice-over that I’d asked about—in which Bourdain improbably reads aloud a despairing e-mail that he sent to a friend, the artist David Choe—but did not reveal the documentary’s other two instances of technological wizardry. Creating a synthetic Bourdain voice-over seemed to me far less crass than, say, a C.G.I. Fred Astaire put to work selling vacuum cleaners in a Dirt Devil commercial, or a holographic Tupac Shakur performing alongside Snoop Dogg at Coachella, and far more trivial than the intentional blending of fiction and nonfiction in, for instance, Errol Morris’s “Thin Blue Line.” Neville used the A.I.-generated audio only to narrate text that Bourdain himself had written. Bourdain composed the words; he just—to the best of our knowledge—never uttered them aloud. Some of Neville’s critics contend that Bourdain should have the right to control the way his written words are delivered. But doesn’t a person relinquish that control anytime his writing goes out into the world? The act of reading—whether an e-mail or a novel, in our heads or out loud—always involves some degree of interpretation. I was more troubled by the fact that Neville said he hadn’t interviewed Bourdain’s former girlfriend Asia Argento, who is portrayed in the film as the agent of his unravelling.

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