ROADRUNNER: A Film About Anthony Bourdain 2021 Directed by Morgan Neville
Though he wasn’t everyone’s choice of drink, Anthony Bourdain, the food and culture critic, the author of the Bestseller “Kitchen Confidential” and the charismatic star of CNN’s Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, was loved by millions.
I found that his schtick could sometimes grow thin and tiresome, but more often than not I found myself fascinated with, and envious of, the life he was living. He traveled the globe savoring far flung cuisines, meeting interesting and famous, and sometimes infamous, people, uncovering what for many of us were new ideas, novel vistas, strange and wondrous customs, off the beaten path journeys.
He could be hilarious and snarky, exuding an aura of counterculture, rebellion, the soul of a contrarian. And though he became part of a media machine that cares little for our souls, it was mass media he derided and lampooned. He seemed to have little patience for artifice or gimmickry, unoriginality or media clowns. Baffoonish posers such as Guy Fieri were excoriated. An ex-chef who could cut close to the bone, his stingingly accurate barbs were often awfully funny and could be quite mean. On one of his shows, he said, “The likelihood of me successfully shooting even the stupidest animal on camera is about the same as Donald Trump being gracious to anybody or Adam Sandler making a good movie.”
He reminded me quite a bit of an old friend of mine from college, a poet and artist who was likewise very intelligent, snarky and angry, and who also committed suicide.
He made a point of striving for a measure of authenticity. According to him, there were moments of raw, unrehearsed reality that were captured by his film crew, but that there were others that were lost because the film crew simply missed it, and they weren’t going to set up a staged shot to recreate what they’d missed. Near the end of Neville’s documentary, there is footage of Bourdain in a restaurant talking with a young man who is in the middle of telling something difficult to dislodge from his heart when Bourdain’s then girlfriend, Asia Argento, interrupts the young man and stops the scene because she wants better lighting and wants to move the tables and the chairs to get this. The painful confession of this young man is truncated just as he was about to say something meaningful, and the crew makes the adjustments. You can see the multiple emotions warring in Bourdain’s face at being in this sort of moment that he’d sworn never to be in. All because the one-time director was the woman he was infatuated with.
So much for authenticity.
Perhaps it was inevitable that there would be such compromises in such enterprises as “Parts Unknown” and Bourdain’s other shows. He was a novelist as well, and he knew instinctively how to tell a story. He was a raconteur. And besides, literature always begs the question of what the truth really is. More often than not, literature arrives at the truth through the construction of a carefully constructed labyrinth of lies. That’s what fiction is. The prosaic truth is rarely enough.
Morgan Melville has gotten some flack — unwarranted in my view — over some of the methods or tools employed in his telling of Bourdain’s story. But what biography, documentary, or historical recreation is ever the final word? They are perspectives that often give us competing views of reality and truth. All you can do is start from the end and work your way backwwards. Walking in reverse is not the best way to ambulate, but detective work often demands it. And every few years there are movies and books offering revisionist histories. I think the truth is never completely told in one sitting.
There will be other movies about Anthony Bourdain.
In referring to his trilogy of books, “The Rosy Crucifixion”, Henry Miller said that he swore that he’d set out to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, but that in end he was simply unable to do this. The written word taunts the truth, and vice versa. The camera’s lens warps it. The photograph catches but a fleeting glimpse of it. Recounting our stories over dinner, wine and candles, turns our history into just that: a story. All you ever get is a taste.
I remember reading the February 5, 2017 New Yorker magazine’s profile of Anthony Bourdain and being surprised by it. The article painted a picture of a man much more emotionally compromised than what his public persona tried to portray. In the profile, Bourdain spoke of how bad he felt over leaving his first wife, Nancy Putkoski. He was still conflicted. There was another scene described in which he shed tears. We got some disconcerting and intimate behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Wizard of Oz. We should have known at that point that something was wrong. His existential malaise could not help but bleed into his shows.
I remember watching an episode of “Parts Unknown” that featured the Spanish chef José Andrés. The episode itself, I believe, was shot in Asturias, Spain, where chef Andrés resides. Throughout the episode José Andrés is bubbling with a kitschy, cloying energy that starkly contrasts with Bourdain’s wary, distanced but tolerant demeanor, which is a little crispy at the edges. My thought was that Bourdain was nursing a hangover, and that he found himself having to endure with a jaundiced eye the seemingly rehearsed bonhomie of José Andrés’ boisterously uncontainable alegria de vivir, or joi de vivre. The Spanish chef is working the stage like Paul McCartney trying to get the audience to sing the coda to “Hey Jude”, mobilizing the villagers much in the same the tiresome Robert Benini did at his 1991 Oscar win, prancing up and down the auditorium aisles, a grown man skipping like the child he wanted to the world to see him as, full of innocence and wonder, don’tcha know. In the “Parts Unknown” episode, you can see Anthony Bourdain barely keeping it together. I expected him to lurch into projectile vomiting any second. But of course he did not. He was invariably the consummate professional, but sometimes just barely.
Perhaps I’m projecting. Bourdain had a look, an expression, often sarcastic, snarky, incredulous, tinged with some level of what came across as a quintessentially adolescent anger. He seemed frustrated over wanting something that he just wasn’t getting, and was touchy about it.
Just a theory.
And that’s just it. We can theorize until the cows come home, and as with most suicides, there will always be an element of never ever really knowing the why. Chemical imbalances? Probably. Compromised brainwaves? Undoubtedly. Imposter syndrome? He said as much himself. Surrounded by clones? They were drawn to him like zombies. Looking for love in all the wrong places? Everywhere he went. All theories.
But what is not theoretical is that he did end his own life with his own hand.
He had friends whom he seemed to be genuinely consonant and gleeful with: Eric Ripert, David Choe, Roi Choi and others. But given the nature of his job — and it was a job, whatever else he said about it — and the kind of people and attention that kind of job attracts, perhaps there was just no way around it, or no easy way out. The Asia Argentos and the José Andréses had been proliferating for some time, and in the end they painted him into a corner.
I can’t help but think that there was a physical component to his dilemma. Having the world at your feet but feeling unsatisfied with the beautiful patterns of light that play around you is, of course, the oldest and most heartbreaking story there is: the tortured artist paradigm. According to Saint Teresa of Ávila, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.” The Rolling Stones put it this way: “You can’t always get what you want.”
The real tragedy is when you can’t even get what you need.