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Open Thread: The Helen Rosner Interview
Please imagine this whole thing as a deepfake of Orson Welles talking to Rita Hayworth
There is a moment at the end of the film’s second act when the artist David Choe, a friend of Bourdain’s, is reading aloud an e-mail Bourdain had sent him: “Dude, this is a crazy thing to ask, but I’m curious” Choe begins reading, and then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “. . . and my life is sort of shit now. You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?” I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail. Throughout the film, Neville and his team used stitched-together clips of Bourdain’s narration pulled from TV, radio, podcasts, and audiobooks. “But there were three quotes there I wanted his voice for that there were no recordings of,” Neville explained. So he got in touch with a software company, gave it about a dozen hours of recordings, and, he said, “I created an A.I. model of his voice.” In a world of computer simulations and deepfakes, a dead man’s voice speaking his own words of despair is hardly the most dystopian application of the technology. But the seamlessness of the effect is eerie. “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.”
There were many Takes, Tech Policy Press has a useful overview of them and a discussion of the key questions around simulating someone’s voice like this. Helen has been a longtime friend of Tabs, so I asked her if she’d answer some questions about the piece and then hang out to talk to all of us in the Friday open thread. So here is Helen on some Tabs history, some Bourdain history, and a proposed pellet ice dance fight.
RF: Helen! You've been a Tabs reader since way way back in the olden tymes, so besides this May when you pulled off the incredibly rare two links in one issue Double Rosner, do you have any prominent Tabs memories?
HR: There was that time you let me write a Guest Tabs! That was fun. I felt very validated. I think I told people to follow Joy the Baker's Drake on Cake instagram account, which I still stand behind even though I am now considerably less into Drake's music.
RF: Your review of the new Bourdain documentary (in theatres today, this is not sponcon) was yesterday's Afternoon Discourse Starter. Were you surprised at how much attention it got? And were you surprised that so much of the attention was about the AI voice-over detail? In your story there's one paragraph about it but you pretty quickly move on. Did you think "oh people online are gonna lose their minds about this" or was it just like "huh, that's weird" as it reads in your piece? I also saw your thread about the AI thing, but if you have anything to add to that I'd also like to hear it.
HR: I usually take pretty copious notes when I'm watching a screener, almost like live-tweeting the viewing for an audience of myself, so when I sat down for my interview with Morgan Neville I had this little notebook full of probably two or three dozen timestamped beats that I wanted to ask him about from sort of a production and filmmaking perspective. When a piece of media is about a big, bombastic subject like Bourdain, I think our impulse is always to want to talk about the person, the subject, but I've found there's always great journalistic value in fighting against that impulse and instead asking specific questions about process and structure: the cut from the red river to the red carpet that I mention in the piece, the source of that early footage, the two swimming pool shots that seem to mark the act changes, this v/o moment where suddenly Bourdain is reading a private email. When I asked Neville about that, he said something like "Oh I'm so glad you asked about this, because I've been wanting to talk about it but no one's brought it up yet," which is basically the best thing you can hope for in an interview. I'm not sure what I was expecting after that but I definitely was NOT expecting synthetic audio.
In the moment I think I was pretty taken aback, but it settled quickly. I knew it would be a sticky detail but I'm not sure if I expected quite this degree of emotional response, or the tremendous context collapse it's at the center of, though I guess I've been online long enough that I should have seen it coming—people seem to think the whole documentary is falsified, which isn't true, or that these lines are things he never said, which is only true in the most literal sense of "said." In the moment, and as I was writing my piece, I thought of it as just another part of a documentarian's toolkit—like I said on Twitter (ugh sorry) while some docs are hard news, or at least purport to be, the category is pretty broad, and encompasses a lot of, if we were going to use a writing analogy, "creative nonfiction." Someone tweeted about Herzog's concept of "ecstatic truth" which I think is pretty relevant—this idea that truth is not the same thing as fact. If you have a goal you're trying to achieve, a narrative or emotional goal, and you're working in a medium that has a degree of creative and artistic freedom, you pursue that! Bourdain staged a lot of set-pieces on his shows, almost every documentary uses things like animation or splicing to emphasize elements or direct the viewer's attention, or produces scenarios. I really deeply understand why people are bothered by this (or bothered by what they think this is), and I'm a little uneasy with it too, but I don't think it's this grievous violation. I think it's a synthesis of our existential uneasiness with A.I. plus our sort of parasocial sense of connection to (and maybe even ownership of) Bourdain, plus (sorry to everyone!) maybe a little bit of a naïve understanding of filmmaking tools. I do wish there had been more clarity about this, if not having like a "simulated voice" chyron flashing on screen then at least including it in promo materials instead of having the fact come out in interviews.
The fact that Neville said Bourdain's family and agent had signed off on it also gave me some comfort, but last night Ottavia Busia, his former wife, tweeted that she hadn't! Which maybe changes some things but I'm not sure how much?
RF: You've been a food writer for some time, did you ever meet Anthony Bourdain or interview him or anything? Any personal connections?
Yes, we were—I don't want to say friends, it's not like we hung out all the time, but we were friendly. This is a super deep internet cut but the first time we ever interacted was on this niche social media app The List, which was founded by B.J. Novak and Nicholas Kraft. I think it was like 2014 or 2015. It was this weird magical piece of the internet where for a brief shining moment it was invite-only (I can't remember who invited me but thank you to whoever that was!) and there were only like 500 people on there and half of them were super famous. You made lists about things and people could comment on your lists, and I think I'd made one about places to eat in New York that weren't overrated, or something like that? And Tony popped up in my comments to say it was a good list. Then I interviewed him a few times when I worked at Eater—the first time, for the Eater podcast, was the first time I'd ever met him. After that we would text and email occasionally, we had a few meals together. We talked about writing a lot, in sort of insufferable craft-and-technique ways.
RF: Another thing you mentioned in your story is the question of whether Asia Argento should have been involved. You said Neville didn't even attempt to include her. That seems weird to me? Does it seem weird to you? There's a Vulture piece that gets into it some more but Neville seems like he says almost exactly what he told you about it, word for word. "Narrative quicksand" etc. My nosy-person senses are tingling there, I have to say.
It does seem weird to me! I'm surprised he didn't reach out even just for the sake of being able to say "Yes, we tried to reach her" when the question would inevitably come up. But, again, I think that comes back to the line between journalism and other forms of nonfiction—"Roadrunner" is elliptical, it's essayistic, it has a very clear point of view. I don't think it purports to be a definitive account, it's an exploration of the impact Bourdain's choices had on the people close to him.
RF: It seems like the film was authorized and supported by Bourdain's estate. Do you know if Neville had complete editorial freedom? Or if the coöperation of the estate had any bearing on Argento's non-inclusion?
I don't know! It's not a super positive film, so if CNN and the estate held him back it probably wasn't in that department. Nice diaeresis, btw.
RF: Thank you, that started as a joke but now it’s an official part of the Tabs Style Guide, as the interns can attest. I assume the same process happened at The New Yorker, long ago. Have you got anything to add to the great pellet ice debate of... good lord was it barely two weeks ago?
The one thing that I think is super important to keep in mind in this discourse is that drinks with pellet ice in them need to be consumed with a straw, otherwise the ice falls all over your face. So, if it's a drink you'd drink with a straw, pellet ice makes it one billion percent better. If it's a sipping drink, go with something else. I am a pellet ice supremacist but not a pellet ice universalist. I will happily fight Jaya in person, though that's mostly because I think it would be fun to do a highly choreographed fight dance with her.
RF: A dance fight is a good call, I’m pretty sure Jaya could kick both our asses at the same time. Got any other good goss? It's just you and me here. No one will find out.
I'm low on gossip right now, please tell your readers to send their juicy stuff to me. I swear not to tell anyone, I just want to feel cool.
If you have any good gossip, please spill it in the 💬. Also if you have any questions for Helen on Tony Bourdain, the film “Roadrunner,” food, food media, the infamous hair dryer chicken (that she may have wrongly thought would go unmentioned for once), or anything else, please ask below. If you’re not a subscriber yet but you want to comment, the 30% off mystery sale is still on for something like 12 more hours, so get it! And happy Friday everyone.