Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The life and times of Anthony Bourdain


     God, I miss that guy. 
     Odd thing to say about someone I never met, but that's how I feel about Anthony Bourdain, the TV personality who traveled the world. Bourdain ate and drank in numerous settings -- and he did it with acuity and generosity.
    Like just about every other fan of Bourdain's CNN Parts Unknown, I was shocked to learn that Bourdain had committed suicide. In June of 2018, he hanged himself in a hotel room in an Alsatian town in northeastern France.
   It was impossible to believe that a man who seemed so engaged with the world would voluntarily leave it.
    I suppose everyone who watches Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain will be looking for clues about why he chose to end an amazing life in which he was, roughly in this order, a kitchen scrub, a chef, a heroin addict, a husband, a father, a lover,  and a celebrity.
   Director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom and Won't You Be My Neighbor?) doesn't exactly answer the big question as he chronicles Bourdain's life. Bourdain was one of those rare people who didn't perform on TV: He lived on it.
   The closest we come to understanding Bourdain's death comes toward the end of the movie when Neville deals with Bourdain's relationship with actress Asia Argento, his involvement with the #MeToo movement, and the tangles of an affair gone sour.  
    An engrossing look at an extraordinary life, Roadrunner does a fine job showing how Bourdain's career unfolded -- not according to some planned trajectory but as something that seemed to happen to him as he became chef at Manhattan's Les Halles. His life changed when he forayed  into authorship with Kitchen Confidential, a compulsively readable insider's view of restaurant life.
    Before Parts Unknown, Bourdain had two other TV shows -- A Cook's Tour and No Reservations. He became the guy who'd try anything. To underscore the point, Neville shows us Bourdain in Vietnam where he ate the heart of cobra, telling us that he could still feel it beating as he swallowed.
    Bourdain did a lot of crazy things but avoided turning them into self-aggrandizing stunts. Adventure eating became a form of cultural sharing, a commitment to bonding with the people with whom he mingled. He wasn't just tasting food; he was tasting the world -- with a camera crew to record his observations, often delivered in beautifully written narrations.
    Neville tells about Bourdain's marriages and we learn that domesticity couldn’t survive a travel schedule that would have destroyed most of us. Bourdain realized that he had bypassed normality. 
    All of this is tempered by appearances from people who knew Bourdain. Celebrity chefs Eric Ripert -- who discovered Bourdain's dead body -- and David Chang and other pals. We also hear from former wife Ottavia Busia-Bourdain and, importantly, from the producers and crew members who worked with him.
    So, no, there's no Rosebud moment in Roadrunner and we and Bourdain's legacy probably are better for the lack of it. Maybe that's the only gift Bourdain's terrible departure gave us. 
   We'll never really know why he ended his life, and that allows Roadrunner to leave us with an enticing plate of leftovers; i.e., plenty to think about: food, culture, celebrity, and what it’s like to ride a wave that never seems to break or settle on any shore.

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