The new Anthony Bourdain documentary has been met with largely mixed emotions.
On one hand, it firmly establishes Morgan Neville as one of the most prominent documentarians of this era, after his 2018 hits They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the latter which inspired me to begin the great descent into the documentary world in the first place.
On the other hand, it employs an ethically challenging tactic of AI, however brief, which some frown upon for its recklessness. Essentially, an advanced AI bot was fed several hours of Bourdain’s voice in order to be able to replicate its likeness. The AI was then manipulated to speak a Bourdain quotation for which the crew did not have an audio recording of him saying aloud. Its murky waters were further muddled after Bourdain’s ex-wife claimed she was “NOT the one who said Tony would have been cool with that,” through a tweet in reaction to a public statement by Neville who defended its usage (Source).
Neville admitted that he used the technology in order to have a certain effect whilst sharing a particularly vulnerable email. However, he did not disclose where else the artificial voice was used in the film.
There have already been numerous articles written about the ethics of this matter, and frankly, I am not trying to have this particular write-up fall into that territory. When I write, I try to see all possible arguments for an opinion. That often makes my essays a pain in the ass to read, but I believe it’s necessary to proceed cautiously, especially when it comes to the assertion of fact versus fiction. It could be that the controversy is actually succeeding at bringing what could be a skipped-over piece of filmmaking into the limelight, and more people are seeing the movie as a result. In that case, bravo to an excellent and relatively cheap marketing tactic. However, I also think that the credibility of the film is inherently undermined by all of the bad press. Thirty seconds of showcasing a technological breakthrough in vocal recreation, as insensitive as it might be to some, should not render a film blacklisted.
By summoning the candor I traditionally sport, I can admit that I adore this documentary, and I think it’s a shame that I had to open my thoughts about it with such a thorough disclaimer.
Bourdain was a major influence on me. I’m not the only one, I know. But over the past couple of months, he’s been the individual that I’ve been trying to emulate. His ambition, his recklessness, his charm. Dangerously, or perhaps, arrogantly, I see a hell of a lot of him in myself. He was a personality to be reckoned with: I admire both the graciousness and fuck-all he displayed when his life took him on unparalleled journeys. Of course, his life became less about culinary technique over time – who gives a damn about food when you’re an international celebrity with the power of a million endorsements? He hated the term “celebrity chef,” but, frankly, his role was more that of a cultural icon.
The film is roughly divided into two parts: his path to glory and that which made him great, and then his more volatile side as a result of his lack of fulfillment. He is not to be revered without admitting his character flaws, many of which came to a front at the end of his life. He was regressing. That is clear to anyone who could connect the dots of a death-obsessed loner on the edge of a midlife crisis.
I feel his manic energy, his dissatisfaction, that crude, relentless energy of an artist whose thirst just can’t be quenched. That’s a tall order for someone with that much notoriety, and seeing how it destroyed him, it makes me want to shut down my ambition and live out my days in unassuming anonymity. But the good he did in pushing for authenticity of interactions in his peak is too good to dismiss.
Morgan Neville captures Bourdain’s essence with uninhibited vigor and truthfulness. There is a considerable amount of Apocalypse Now imagery edited across the film, which proves essential in demonstrating his addict/junkie nature. It’s bold and blunt and at times, fucking righteous. But underlying that is his quest for scruples in order to solidify his identity. His deep insecurities were only made greater through higher learning. We should be grateful that he was self-aware enough to freely contradict himself and never settle on a why. That’s the spice that made his life’s journey so goddamn interesting.
There is no easy way to encapsulate a man whose every move was filmed, particularly during the distinct intimacy of sharing a meal. It’s possible he was always performing, despite his capacity to connect with an audience by way of his no-bullshit attitude. Maybe what many thought made him so real was all a facade, his occasional vulnerability only a leakage of his pent-up aggression. Neville brings together the music, the movies, the food, and the locations that made him feel whole during his lifetime, while still hinting at the triviality that Bourdain might have seen in these details in the grand scheme of things. How deep can a person be without being omniscient?
Speculating on Bourdain's suicide towards the end of the movie could always be a path to controversy, but if you aren’t willing to trust old footage and his closest friends, that is between you and a deceased man. The general resentment towards Asia Argento is apparent (more on that here) but I felt as though there were enough interpretations on the table to cross off the idea that she was solely to blame. Unfortunately, with a death whose only witness was both the killer and the victim, it is incredibly difficult to discern an objective truth. People are going to create their own explanations in order to help themselves sleep at night. The matter had to be discussed while it was still fresh, and his ex-wife elucidated that this documentary would be the only time she talked publicly about his death.
Anthony Bourdain was a storyteller, and I’m sure he would’ve appreciated those he trusted giving a shot at telling his story with all the same perspective and artfulness he employed for his own.
Roadrunner is not a stroll through a foodie blog’s greatest hits. It’s a bona fide trek, brimming with the convolutions and paradoxes that make life as a human being interesting and worthwhile. It is a shame we lost a man to his own internal discontentment, but through examining his life more closely we’re bound to part with wisdom of our own. Not the “walking on the beach pensively” kind of wisdom, though. He would’ve hated that. We part, instead, with the encouragement to live voraciously.