Anthony Bourdain was a force of nature. He was brash, driven, tough and honest to a fault. He didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was curious about everything, especially about how others lived their lives around and away from the dinner table. He was a hell of a writer, as direct on the page as he was on his many TV series. He was the kind of person you wouldn’t mind spending a few hours with, talking about anything over a good meal or several drinks or even a cup of coffee or a joint.
Which is why his suicide on June 8, 2018, at a hotel in France where he was shooting an episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown, came as a complete shock. Everyone—media, fans, friends, relatives—started to look for reasons why such a prominent media figure, a man who seemed to be having the time of his life and was such an open book, would commit such an act.
No one is an open book. We all have our demons. We all build defense mechanisms, personas, to push those demons away. But as Morgan Neville, the director of 40 Feet from Stardom and Won’t You Be My Neighbor, suggests in ROADRUNNER: a Film About Anthony Bourdain, the evidence that might at least hint as to the why was there all along. All you had to do was dig beneath the surface.
And dig is exactly what Neville and his team did, watching hundreds of hours of used and unused footage from Bourdain’s series, as well as his interviews, profiles and media appearances. They interviewed friends, family, colleagues, and those who worked with him. Neville does not pretend to provide a definitive answer as to the why. He merely looks at Bourdain’s life from all angles, hinting at the many factors that might provide an answer.
Neville, for example, highlights through the chosen footage how death was a consistent obsession for Bourdain: He constantly refers to it, even in interviews. He even claims that it is “therapeutic to think about death a couple of minutes a day.” What might have been seen as a meditation on the cycle of life in his series, now takes a more ominous tone in the documentary. Throughout, we are struck by Bourdain’s haunted look, as if he detected the presence of the Grim Reaper nearby.
Neville begins his story just as Bourdain is about to become an overnight sensation as a bestselling author for Kitchen Confidential, after years of toiling in the kitchen of the Brasserie Les Halles in New York City. Bourdain taught himself to read and, even though Neville doesn’t come right out and say it, reading was Bourdain’s first addiction, an essential one if you want to become a writer. Bourdain was always upfront about his early bouts with heroin, but as Neville and his many interviewees make clear, he changed one addiction for another while skipping rehab: workaholism, travel, jiu-jitsu, even Asia Argento and the #MeToo movement.
With his Kitchen Confidential book tour, Bourdain started to stack up his frequent flyer miles. Until then, his view of the world came exclusively from books and movies. That changed when producers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins approached him with the idea of Bourdain hosting his own food travel show, A Cook’s Tour, for The Food Network. At first he was very uncomfortable in front of the camera, and it shows on his first trip to Tokyo. But as soon as he started writing his own voice-over, Bourdain became more comfortable in front of the camera and started to develop the TV persona we all know.
No Reservations for The Discovery Channel and Parts Unknown refined the formula created by Tenaglia, Collins and Bourdain: He would fly off to distant parts of the world and the United States to highlight their cuisine and, most important, the people. Not celebrities (although they were always invited to join in the fun) but regular, mostly working-class folks. All three series are a product of Bourdain’s voracious need to know, to discover something new—and, in a way, escape.
His constant traveling, 250 days a year when all was said and done, cost him two marriages. We don’t hear from his first wife at all; his second Busia Ottavia, with whom he had a daughter, has more screen time in part because she was an anchor to him during this period. It comes as a shock to see Bourdain play the suburban father figure behind a grill, cooking some sausages and burgers for his family. As his friend, Queens of the Stone Age musician Josh Homme, says: “Nothing feels better than going home, nothing feels better than leaving home.” But what happens when you lose that which gave balance to your life?
His interest in other countries may at first have been cultural, but it quickly turned into a desire to question the world’s inequities while celebrating the resourcefulness of its poor. Politics unavoidably made its way into the episodes. What was going to be a simple episode on Lebanon for No Reservations, for example, turned into something more urgent, as, in the middle of the shoot, Israel began bombing Beirut after Hezbollah kidnapped three Israeli soldiers. And following a visit to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, Bourdain decided to organize a food drive to help feed the hungry. As the need outweighed the demand, a riot nearly broke out, with some using force to get the food. Bourdain at one point begins to wonder who is benefitting from these shows.
Even though the documentary doesn’t mention it—when it comes to Bourdain, there is so much material to choose from—his support for immigrant workers in the United States, especially Mexicans and Salvadorans, must be called out. As a chef and cook, Bourdain knew how essential these workers were not only to the United States’ overall economy, but to the health and growth of the restaurant industry. And I personally am forever grateful for the Parts Unknown episode he shot in Puerto Rico, months before Hurricane María struck the island. In it he profiled close to a hundred of small, young, independent farmworkers and celebrated the spirit of self-sufficiency that would later prove pivotal to the island’s survival post-María.
Neville treads lightly when it comes to Bourdain’s relationship with Italian actress and director Asia Argento towards the end of his life. Neville didn’t interview Argento for the documentary, to avoid, as he said in a recent interview for UPROXX, any “he said, she said.” He relies entirely on the public record—footage and outtakes from Parts Unknown’s final season—and interviews with Bourdain’s production team and close friends, to portray their relationship. Bourdain was not only madly in love with Argento, he was obsessed with her. He let her not only direct the Hong Kong episode of the series, but bring on director of photography Christopher Doyle (who photographed most of Wong Kar-Wai’s early films), alienating Bourdain’s entire production team.
And when Argento accused Harvey Weinstein at the Cannes Film Festival of sexually assaulting her, Bourdain became such a vocal advocate of the #MeToo movement that he stopped talking to those friends he didn’t see as supportive enough of the movement. However, Neville doesn’t mention the sexual assault accusations leveled against Argento or Bourdain’s role in paying off her accuser. The interviewees’ almost resentful tone doesn’t much help Neville’s argument of trying to avoid the “he said, she said.” It’s really a “they said” scenario.
In the end, Neville paints as complete a picture as possible of Bourdain’s complex personality and the persona he built around himself. The film celebrates his accomplishments, his chutzpah, but that celebration is also weighed down by a deep sense of sorrow and mourning. It is also a film about the gaping hole a suicide leaves behind. It is about how friends, relatives and colleagues process and come to terms with such a decisively abrupt and deadly decision. While close friends like French chef Éric Ripert, who found his body, much rather not talk about it, others would rather remember him, tearfully, by the totality of his life and not one event.
And then there are those who, like artist Dave Choe, take to the streets and make art, even if it involves defacing several murals depicting Bourdain.
Bourdain would have most certainly approved.
Featured image: Anthony Bourdain stars in Morgan Neville’s documentary, ‘ROADRUNNER.’ (Courtesy of CNN/Focus Features)