How deep is your fake? Documentary film brings Anthony Bourdain to life

One man, one country and food. Anthony Bourdain as the culinary tour guide in a scene from the documentary “Roadrunner”. Image: keystone


How deep is your fake? Documentary film brings Anthony Bourdain to «life»

The longing to win back the dead is likely to be as old as humanity itself. Oscar winner Morgan Neville was also seduced by it.

In my youth in the country we occasionally tried to conjure up something out of boredom. Aliens. And dead. Seen soberly, it never worked. But if we believed in it enough, we reliably discovered traces of ufo land in the garden bed every morning. The instructions for summoning aliens were in «Bravo». You stared into a lamp or candle for a few minutes and concentrated in your head on the same sentence. Then you looked out the window. Logically some lights blinked after a long look into the lamp.

And if we sat at the party tables long enough, we could let the dead speak. The dead, astonishingly, announced exactly those messages that we wanted to hear from them. We acted as screenwriters and ventriloquists of our imagination. Nothing else.

Today, the longing for the familiar dead – the ghosts, so to speak, who do not spread terror and to whom we listen because they know us – can be alleviated thanks to deepfakes. There are Digital Natives who obsessively collect sound and image material from their grandparents who have not yet been digitally immortalized enough to use them as avatars after their death Life to awaken and to have around again. And in the fall of 2020, Kanye West gave his Kim Kardashian a gift the following video for his birthday:

Robert Kardashian speaks to Kim

It shows Kim’s father, lawyer Robert Kardashian, who died in 2003. He wishes his daughter a happy birthday in a reanimated form – with his face and his voice. And in Kanye West’s words, as you can easily see towards the end of the clip: “You have married the most most most most most genius man in the whole world, Kanye West,” says Kim’s father. , very, most ingenious man in the world married, Kanye West. ” The marriage was not saved by this self-promotion from the father’s mouth either. A few months later it was over.

As early as 2008, John Lennon, who died in 1980, had campaigned on behalf of the “One Laptop per Child” foundation that every child should have access to a computer. The animation was pretty bitter back then, but the announcement made with Lennon’s voice sounded reasonably authentic. Even if the word “laptop”, which only came into use in the 80s, was almost certainly synthetically produced.

John Lennon is advertising

And now Anthony Bourdain, who died in 2018, suddenly speaks a few sentences from the afterlife that he never said. Orally. In writing, yes. For example, they come from an email he wrote to a friend: “You are successful, and I am successful,” says Bourdain’s voice, “and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” “You are successful and I am successful and I ask myself: are you happy?”

They can be heard in the new documentary «Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain »by Morgan Neville. The film has now opened in American cinemas and should be shown on HBO and CNN in 2021.

The New Yorker Anthony Bourdain was a cook, author, adventurer, was curious and painless on television. Loved fire, French cuisine and the women. And repeatedly suffered from severe depression. Who, at the age of 43, had gone from being a poorly paid chef to the sensational author of the revelatory book “Kitchen Confidential” overnight, considered himself a con man who could immediately vanish into insignificance again. On June 8, 2018, to the horror of everyone, he hanged himself while filming his show “Parts Unknown” in France.

Californian Morgan Neville won an Oscar in 2014 for “20 Feet from Stardom”, his documentary about the Afro-American background singers of Bruce Springsteen, Elton John and the Stones. Now he has conducted countless interviews with bereaved families and, in the process, he told the New Yorker that he had done a lot of mourning work. He didn’t want to talk to Bourdain’s last girlfriend, the actress Asia Argento, and – according to American reviews – labeled her the absolute villain in the film. Together with material from Bourdain’s programs, a two-hour documentary was made.

A total of 45 seconds of these two hours are now causing major discussions. Neville did not resurrect Bourdain as a video avatar or as a hologram, like Tupac Shakur, who “stood” on stage next to Snoop Dog in Coachella in 2012, 16 years after his death.

But he had a software company convert a good 12 hours of Bourdain’s vocal material into an artificial voice. Who can then read out Bourdain’s emails, for example. A measure that Neville took purely for the sake of the dramatic effect. The simulated “real” voice is intended to reinforce the authenticity and emotionality of Bourdain’s words. Now this is certainly an approximation, but nothing more. The artificial intelligence behind the voice draws its interpretation from the intersection of a limited number of possibilities of expression.

“Roadrunner” premieres on June 11th at the Tribeca Festival in New York. Image: keystone

The point with the question of happiness was discovered by the addressee of Bourdain’s email. Neville does not want to reveal two other artificially spoken passages in the film. The reactions to this are contradicting itself. Some find that Neville didn’t really go far in terms of artistic freedom. The others are stunned because they consider this to be journalistically unethical and a crime in the objectivity, which has to stand above everything, especially in documentary films. In the case of the feature film, whose narrative basis is fiction anyway, digitally revived actors and actresses were considered – for example Carrie Fisher in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” – never as a mortal sin.

Neville’s use of artificial intelligence isn’t really bad in this case. No abusive reality is created by mounting a familiar face on someone else’s body – as is the case in deepfake porn. Nor is it about providing alleged video evidence of the misconduct of a politician. And nobody claims that the words that Bourdain “speaks” as voice-over in the film are not his. Not like Trump, who could make a statement one day and claim the next that it was faked.

Morgan Neville am Tribeca Festival. Image: keystone

So it is not an audience deception with manipulative intent. It is more about building a bridge between Bourdain’s certified words and an oral reality. It’s just an overly complicated detour. An actor could have spoken these lines too. Or the friends they were addressed to could have read them.

But of course a small piece of directly verifiable reality has been dissolved into the large virtual “Anything Goes” that even the boldest postmodern theory could not imagine a few decades ago. Although at that time every possible disintegration was postulated.

And what will become of Bourdain’s voice now? A lot could be imagined: culinary podcasts, navigation devices, household robots, sex dolls … or simply peace and quiet. Because despite all longing for eternity, life is finite. Even if the methods of conjuring up the dead have become infinitely more sophisticated than they used to be.

Unfortunately, there is still no way to see “Roadrunner” with us.

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