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The dangerous disrespect of making Anthony Bourdain speak from the dead

I should have trusted my bullshit detector; Anthony Bourdain would be ashamed of me. (At least I think he would.)

There were moments in Morgan Neville’s “Roadrunner” that seemed a bit too perfect. The perfection didn’t stem from cinematography or editing or the arbitrary intercuts of Kurosawa films. It didn’t come from the insights of those who knew the celebrity chef and journalist best. It came courtesy of one of the strongest assets in the entire film: previously unheard narration from Bourdain himself.

When audio of Bourdain reading a private, gutting email to his friend, street artist David Choe, suddenly appeared, I was suspicious. Why would Bourdain have entered the booth to read this? Was it part of some unpublished memoir he was recording before his death? It did dawn on me that this could, with the massive cache of audio Neville was sitting on, have been reconstructed. Come to find that I’m right. It’s fake. I was duped, and for a dubious reason.

“I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail,” the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner wrote, in an article published Thursday, after most reviews of the film were filed or published. Neville admitted that he created an A.I. model of Bourdain’s voice.

“If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the A.I., and you’re not going to know,” Neville said. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Were I impaneled, I know exactly what I’d say. This trickery isn’t something to brag about — I think it’s exceedingly lazy storytelling — and the ethics are truly questionable, suggesting, among other things, that Bourdain was comfortable sharing this deeply personal correspondence. Had Rosner not asked him about it, would Neville have ever copped to it? How many people still “don’t know” that the voice we’re hearing is not really Bourdain’s? And even if Bourdain’s estate gave its blessing — and apparently it did, though his widow maintains she didn’t — what kind of deepfake precipice are we standing at the edge of?

I don’t anticipate a revivified Bourdain in vacuum commercials or appearing as a hologram at Coachella. This is much worse, and has greater implications for documentary filmmaking and the ever-assailed enterprise of truth that some of us still care about. As Rosner notes, deepfakes can and have been used for more insidious purposes, and, at least in this case, where the material was in fact written by Bourdain, Neville is putting Bourdain’s voice to Bourdain’s words, not words in his mouth. But the offered excuse that Bourdain’s estate and literary agent gave their blessing is emblematic of the film’s major failings.

Those interviewed — friends, colleagues, family — all chime in to suggest the ways Bourdain had gone astray and what he would have wanted. But the film is split between its deference to him and a true accounting of his final days.

Would Bourdain, however self-effacing (or flagellating) he was, really want what is, in effect, a pillorying of his relationship with Asia Argento? Would the suggestion that his devotion to her led to his ruin meet with his approval? He didn’t leave a suicide note, so there’s no real way of knowing.

That ambiguity is useful. In fact, the parts of the film that allow for doubt come closest to the spirit of what made Bourdain such a compelling and, ultimately, tragic figure.

But in the end, Neville, unable to work with what Bourdain left us, manufactured what others told him was a proper tribute to a man who quite clearly felt misunderstood.

In the final minutes of the documentary, Choe insists that a poignant final shot of Bourdain on the beach in Provincetown, receding out of frame as the tide rolls in, is an ending Bourdain would “fucking hate.”

Then, hearing there are murals of Tony nearby, Choe says “I should go deface them. He would love it if I did that.”

Choe paints over one as rock music blares. That’s how the film ends: with people claiming to know Bourdain’s wishes and the man himself unable to tell them otherwise.

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