Monday, July 19, 2021

Review - Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain (2021)


"The Journey Changes You."

Anthony Bourdain was a lot of things: chef, author, travel host, punk philosopher, iconoclast, and reluctant figurehead, to name a few. He was thrust onto the international stage in 2000 with a tell-all book, Kitchen Confidential, that quickly rose through the ranks of the bestseller list. This led to talk show appearances, and then to a new career as the host of a travel show with food and culture under the microscope. Before anyone would have expected, Bourdain's frank, no-b.s. attitude, coupled with an intense and deeply-analytical interest in the world around him, created a superstar. Hundreds of hours of television and multiple books were produced over the next 18 years. On June 8, 2018, Bourdain committed suicide in France, seemingly in reaction to tabloid reports that his lover, film director Asia Argento, was seeing someone else. The story had come to a shocking, tragic end.  

Or had it? Does his death define that story, or can we examine the rich life that he lived, instead?

The stellar new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain seeks to unravel the man himself. Yes, his final days are chronicled in as much detail as possible, but the film is far more interested in exploring the complicated figure, as well as the deep relationships that he formed along his restless, gypsy journeys. 

Full disclosure: I've struggled with how to approach this review. On one hand, there's the detached, professional path that speaks of the merits of the film itself and examines the narrative. But then, there's the other hand, the path that is personal and vulnerable, even uncomfortable. Bourdain was a man of passion, a man of restlessness, a man with standards that nobody could live up to, including himself. Failed relationships, failed marriages, a darkness that was both a friend an an enemy at once. Above all, he was a runner, an addictive personality who didn't do anything in small measures, be it food, drink, substances, or even work itself. 

Roadrunner crystalizes what we knew all along: Bourdain was a patron saint of restless souls, and that is my tribe. Some people create because they have to. The voices in their head won't be silent until they've exorcised them onto a page, or a video, or journal. To not create, to not express what is within, is tantamount to death. Or if that seems too dramatic, perhaps a little death, a little chip away at one's soul, leaving one diminished. But here's the rub: sharing too much of oneself can also have a similar diminishing effect, like ice cream melting in the hot summer sun. Seekers don't stop. No, that's not accurate; they can't stop, even when they want to. For seekers and runners, happiness is elusive, perhaps around the next corner, the next meal, the next trip, the next purchase, the next glass, the next hit. Nothing is more painful than stagnation, nothing more offensive than mediocrity. Runners are nomadic creatures, if not physically, then definitely within the realm of their own minds. Like gypsies, always in search of the next place to set up camp. But each camp is not a permanent destination, and before long, it's time to move on. 

This was Anthony Bourdain. It's also a lot of other people who are wired exactly the same way. The real gift that Roadrunner offers the audience is a look at the many different sides of a man that may very well have been misunderstood by almost everyone. Shyness easily mistaken for arrogance. Self-loathing mistaken for aggression. High expectations of others actually a manifestation of low self-esteem. Lack of patience with his travel producers that was actually a desire to make up for lost time and seize every moment in the most real, genuine way possible, not filtered through artifice and television fakery. 

Through archival footage, b-roll, and interviews with those who knew Bourdain best, we're given unprecedented access to the real life of a man who, admittedly, rarely put on a happy face for the camera and never pretended to be something he was not. We see his earliest success after the publication of Kitchen Confidential and a man who is (justifiably) suspicious of authority, the media, and anyone offering a free lunch. To paraphrase a quote when someone asks him if he's happy about his success: "I don't trust anything outside those kitchen doors." Control. We see the birth of Bourdain the world traveler, swallowing the still-beating heart of a cobra, and we also see how his need to be 100% genuine changes and alters the course of the production. We see the heart of darkness as he retreats within and coldly slaughters animals for the table while the documentary hauntingly compares Bourdain to Marlon Brando's Col. Walter E. Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, a movie he loved and quoted often. And yet, we also see the tender side: the husband, the father, the romantic. A man who valued relationships and loved his friends, but who was always in search of ever-elusive happiness. The duality is complicated. Contradictory. 

The tagline of the film is "The Journey Changes You." Indeed, we see as Bourdain transforms from an intellectual introvert who lives his dreams through books and film into an experienced globe trekker. We see his reticence at being a part of the media evolve into the authority to transmit his message and his voice to the largest audience possible. And we see the toll that this takes on him as he becomes tired, angry, and withdrawn from too many miles, too many strangers who know his name, and the realization that there's nowhere in the world that he can go to get away from himself and the fame that he was given--no, not given. That he helped create. 

All of this information is deftly woven together into a brisk and deeply-engaging narrative by the film's producer and director, Morgan Neville. Some readers may recognize Neville from his masterpiece examination of minister/children's show host Fred Rogers in the 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? as well as a whole spate of music documentaries covering the likes of Brian Wilson, Sam Phillips, Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and Keith Richards. That Neville would turn his attention to Anthony Bourdain with the same fervor as rock and roll's greatest legends says a lot. Though Bourdain wasn't known for music, he embodied the same uncompromising lifestyle that made him a respected figure among the rock and rollers who also exist at the fringes of society. One of the many talking heads in Roadrunner is Josh Homme, the co-founder of the bands Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age, and Eagles of Death Metal. It's also no surprise to learn that Bourdain was also a long-term penpal with musician/actress Alison Mosshart. 

The film is also filled with other figures from Bourdain's life, including celebrity chefs such as David Chang and Eric Ripert, artist David Choe, Bourdain's second wife Ottavia, and many, many more. The most notable absence in the new conversations recorded for the film is also the most understandable: though such a key component to the story (and finale) of Bourdain's life, Asia Argento is not featured in the interviews. 

Are there any messages to be gleaned from this beautiful film? After all, life is not a Hollywood production and loose ends are rarely tied up neatly in a bow with a happy ending. As Orson Welles said, "If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop the story." And yet, for all the sadness and heartache contained in the documentary, there's so much joy. If life is judged by how much it is lived, Bourdain left this world with nothing held back. Dozens of trips around the globe, no meal off the table, no wine left uncorked. He approached people and cultures in the same way he approached each new travel opportunity, with his whole heart and mind wide open to the experience. Director Morgan Neville has the wherewithal to fill his documentary with rock and roll revelry, from the music choices to the editing style to the kind of outsider aesthetic that sums up Bourdain so succinctly. This is not a funeral dirge, it's a raucous riot. 

In the interview that kicks off the film, one of the participants asks the director what the goal is for the documentary. Neville replies that he wants to show who Bourdain was. 

In that monumental task, he has succeeded.  

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain is currently in theaters.