Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain epitomized the ethos of his rock-and-roll idols: live life as an adventure, and always tell it like it is.  An admitted former heroin addict in his teens, he was inspired to become a cook while working as a dishwasher.  Roadrunner chronicles Bourdain’s amazing life, which included several successful careers: cook, chef, best-selling author and Emmy-winning host of a popular television show.  Ultimately, Bourdain was a restless soul whose all-consuming quest for experience took him around the world, several times over.  Emotional commentary by family, friends and colleagues help us to understand who Bourdain was, beyond his television persona.  Roadrunner paints a stunning portrait of a larger-than-life person who was loved and appreciated by many, but for some reason never felt it or believed it.  Highly recommended.

Prior to seeing Roadrunner, I was a very casual fan of Anthony Bourdain.  I never read his book, and only saw bits and pieces of Parts Unknown.  I enjoyed his cameo in The Big Short.  This is not to say I wasn’t a fan of Bourdain.  Far from it.  I appreciated his “no BS” approach to telling a story.  Unfortunately for me, Bourdain did most of his work in cooking/travel shows, two genres I never intentionally devote viewing time to.  I like fictional narratives first and foremost.  All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I admired Bourdain from afar, and that I really appreciated how Roadrunner helped me to get to know someone I’d always wanted to know more about.

Roadrunner energetically chronicles Bourdain’s life, from his childhood until his shocking death in 2018.  When he died at 61, Bourdain was an incredibly busy man, traveling the world for his show Parts Unknown.  (He died on location in Strasbourg, France.)   Like most celebrities who commit suicide, everyone who knew him felt he died too young, that he had a full life with so much ahead of him.  Bourdain, for whatever reason, asked for the check before his meal was finished.  Bourdain himself said that he thought he would have died in his twenties.  That he lived past middle-age offers little consolation to those he left behind, however.  Roadrunner serves as a testament to Bourdain’s life and the people who knew him.  I was completely taken with Bourdain’s story, and was moved by all of its surprising twists and turns, including the last one, where it unexpectedly became a tragedy.

Bourdain was a very public figure for most of his adult life, seemingly in front of a camera from the time Kitchen Confidential was released until just before his death.  He was very candid about himself, giving the folks behind Roadrunner the luxury of using his own words to describe not only the events in his life, but his thoughts and feelings on practically everything in his life.  When he wasn’t filming, Bourdain wrote often, including emails to his friends and blog posts.  Amazingly, the filmmakers were able to condense all of the available material down to an engaging and extremely affecting two hour documentary.

I was surprised to learn that Bourdain was a willing heroin addict at eighteen.  He actively sought out drugs, rebelling against his bourgeois family life.  He took a look in the mirror and decided he needed to clean up his act, and got off heroin without going into rehab. Bourdain got himself a job as a dishwasher in Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Exposure to working in a kitchen ignited a passion for cooking, and he spent several years studying culinary arts.  Bourdain eventually became a cook, ran several restaurants in New York City, then became chef at Brasserie Les Halles when he was forty-two.  According to Bourdain, being a cook, and then a chef, kept him busy and away from drugs (for the most part).

When he was young, Bourdain proudly confesses that his heroes were writers and rock stars.  (Images of Earnest Hemingway, William Burroughs, Sid Vicious, the Rolling Stones are shown).  His heart was clearly with troublemakers and counterculture types, people we would describe today as disruptors.  He enjoyed writing, and working in restaurants gave him what all writers and musicians need: experience.  One of his friends read an email from Bourdain to his wife, who was a publishing agent.  She was taken with the immediacy of his writing, as well as his unique voice.  She offered Bourdain an advance for a book, which accepted without hesitation.  He already had a title in mind for his book: Kitchen Confidential.

Bourdain started working on his novel in 1998.  It was released in 2000 and quickly became a New York Times Bestseller.  The book revealed Bourdain as a natural raconteur.  His agent saw the next logical step for Bourdain’s career was in front of the camera.  His career as a television host began in 2002 with A Cook’s Tour.  The producers quickly discovered that while Bourdain talked about visiting foreign lands, he had never actually traveled out of the country.  Now that his memoir had made him famous, Bourdain finally had the clout and the opportunity to travel to all of the places he dreamed of seeing in person.

A Cook’s Tour only lasted one year, but served as on-the-job training for Bourdain.  Interestingly, the producers of A Cook’s Tour mention how Bourdain was an introvert.  It took him several episodes before he got the hang of what he needed to do in front of the camera, to learn how to be himself, but a little larger than life.  He successfully employed what he learned in his next two series: No Reservations (2005–2012) and Parts Unknown (2013–2018).  Friends mention that Bourdain was a quick learner, and it’s remarkable how someone with no experience in front of the camera jumped in feet-first became a mainstay on television for sixteen years.

In front of the camera, Bourdain was funny and very self-effacing, with an eye for detail that helped capture what was special about wherever he was.  Occasionally, he would turn his sharp, analytical mind towards others, including members of his crew who he counted among his close friends.  They took his criticisms in stride, though.  At his core, Bourdain was a perfectionist, as hard on himself as he was towards others.  He always wanted his show to be the best it could be, and felt no qualms about letting his opinions rip unfiltered, with no concern as to whether anybody would have hurt feelings as a result.

Being the focus of a popular television show that required regular travel took its toll on Bourdain’s first marriage.  He divorced his first wife Nancy of thirty years in 2005.  (They married as high school sweethearts, but never had children.)  She appears in video footage, but was not interviewed for the film.

In 2006, his experience filing in Lebanon, occurring when fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas, forced him to question what he was doing.  He had long believed that the table was the “great leveler” between people, but after watching the city around him get bombed while he waited by the pool, he wasn’t sure.

Bourdain married his second wife, Ottavia, in 2007, and they welcomed a daughter, Ariane, later that year.  Being a father was something Bourdain thought would never happen for him.  He clearly loved spending time with his daughter, as evinced by the home video footage included.  Even though he was on the road 250 days a year, he tried to be a good father, preparing mountains of food whenever he came home.  Ottavia provided Bourdain with stability, their home a comfortable respite from his travels.  She also was a mixed-martial artist, and Bourdain, always curious, became interested in jiu-jitsu.  Like everything he attempted, he went all-in.  He trained, competed in tournaments, and won medals.  His friends did their best to tolerate his newfound obsession, even when he bored them talking about jiu-jitsu for hours.

As time went on, the focus of Bourdain’s shows became less focused on food and more about the places he went, where he spent time talking to everyday people about where they lived and their culture.  Bourdain’s experiences made him world-weary, and he started questioning his place in the world.  At one point he asks what sounds like a rhetorical question: who benefits from what he does?  Certainly the television networks benefit, and he is able to live a very comfortable lifestyle.  But life seems to go on unchanged, regardless of where he goes or what he does.  In a telling segment, Bourdain is shown in a hotel in Tripoli, Libya, not long after the attack on the American embassy in Benghazi.  In his hotel room, he watches CNN, which is running constant coverage on the attack.  In the city itself, Bourdain sees people going about their business, watching fireworks go off at night.  I believe Bourdain realized that networks like CNN were all about ratings, and scenes of families enjoying a night in Tripoli was never going to attract viewers, even though that was the reality.

I got the feeling that Bourdain was unsatisfied with where his life had taken him.  He’d been a cook, a chef, a writer, a television host, a husband and a father, but none of it was enough to make him happy.  At one point, he told the producers that he wanted to quit.  They agreed to support him with that decision, a response they feel Bourdain probably didn’t anticipate.  They were his friends, and wanted him to be happy.  Bourdain was born a restless soul, however.  I believe he couldn’t stop traveling because he was an adrenaline junky.  Hitting the road, seeing new places and meeting people gave his life meaning and excitement.  Bourdain separated from his second wife in 2017, and confessed that thought he was not a good father to his daughter, since he was gone all the time.  Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age) commented that he’s living the life of a musician: happy to come home, but eventually happy to leave.

Roadrunner details Bourdain’s growing disillusionment with his role in several episodes.  In Haiti, he is left speechless over the devastation that a recent earthquake did to the country.  People cannot work and cannot afford to buy food.  Bourdain gives leftover food to the people for free, but things devolve into chaos.  Bourdain returned to Lebanon in 2015, only to see a city that is half war-torn, half undergoing major development with funds from Hamas and Iran.  His friends say that things seem worse than they did ten years ago.

At one point, Bourdain remarks that he’s always searching for the thing that will fill up the empty spot in his soul.  After divorcing his second wife in 2016, he was adrift.  He was growing indulgent, filming an episode of his last show, Parts Unknown, in the Belgian Congo.  One of his favorite movies was Apocalypse Now, and in the Congo, he was able to breathe the atmosphere of a society that had devolved into complete chaos.  He slaughters a live chicken, then spears a hog.  These purely visceral acts must have been exciting for him at the time, but I suspect were only diversions.

In 2017, Bourdain started a relationship with Asia Argento.  One of his friends says that Bourdain was looking to be with someone “wild and feral”.  I’d never seen any of Argento’s films, and only knew about her through her involvement with #MeToo.  (Actually, I’d heard that she acted in the nude in a movie directed by her father, but that’s all.)  Based on what I’d read in the media, I was expecting Asia to be some kind of crazy lady.  The impression I got of her in Roadrunner was the complete opposite, however.  She appeared confident, opinionated, knowledgeable, personable, funny, anything but what the media had made her out to be.

A friend of Bourdain’s says that Bourdain’s feelings towards Asia were similar to a guy who had sex for the first time, meaning that his feelings for her were clouding his judgement.  When the regular director for Parts Unknown needed emergency gallbladder surgery, he had Asia step in as director.  When the show’s cinematographer butted heads with Asia, Bourdain fired him.  The crew was shocked that Bourdain would do something like this to someone he considered a friend for over ten years.  Bourdain chose making his girlfriend happy over his crew, an act that left his crew feeling expendable.

Bourdain was fully in love with Asia, and made her passions his passions.  He went all-in on the #MeToo movement, reportedly calling out former friends and colleagues in the media without notice.  Five days before his death, Bourdain’s relationship with Asia took a dark turn.  Tabloids featured pictures of Asia cavorting with a male friend in Rome while he was in France.  I have  no problem with them being included in the movie.  They are part of the historical record, and have been seen by millions of people

In Strasbourg, Michael Steed, the show’s director, saw Bourdain outside in the cold, smoking by himself, looking troubled.  When Steed tried to comfort him over the revelations in the media about Agrento’s other relationship, Bourdain responded bitterly with “a little discretion”.  He was found dead the next day.

For someone who revealed so much of himself in his work, and was such a prolific writer, Bourdain frustratingly didn’t leave behind a letter explaining his actions.  While Bourdain was wildly successful, he was not a generally happy person.  He suffered from bouts of depression which came upon him at any time.  A segment from an episode in Parts Unknown where Bourdain has a session with a psychotherapist is telling, as he openly discusses his battles with depression, insecurity and dark thoughts.  He was caught on camera several times making jokes about killing himself, even to one of his best friends.

His friends and family do their best to explain why Bourdain did what he did, providing reasons that, when viewed together, could have provided the impetus for him to end his life.  Bourdain had an addictive personality.  This led him to put all of his energies into whatever he was doing, whether it was cooking, working on his show, learning jiu-jitsu, or being in a relationship.  His obsessions kept him so busy that he wouldn’t have the time or energy to dwell on the dark thoughts that entered his mind without warning.  Bourdain felt guilty about not being a good enough father to his daughter.  He wanted to stop doing his show, but couldn’t give up the excitement it gave him.  He possibly felt trapped in a life he couldn’t change, with a career that he didn’t want to relinquish but that left him exhausted.  In spite of his best efforts, he wasn’t making a difference in the world.  And even though he was loved by people all over the world, he never felt that way.

After watching Roadrunner, one could believe that the media revealing Argento’s infidelity tipped Bourdain over the edge.  Given that Bourdain previously had been in two long-term monogamous relationships, one could assume that Bourdain may have been upset at Argento not sharing his conventional feelings about relationships.  Having her carefree nature revealed to the entire world must have been upsetting for him.  Argento claims that they were in an open relationship at the time, but Bourdain is no longer here to either refute or confirm her statements.

From a chronological perspective, the pictures of Argento in the media was the last significant event in Bourdain’s life.  Is it possible he killed himself in a bout of depression over that perceived slight?  I don’t think any reasonable person could rule it out.  He loved Argento with a degree of passion she may not have been willing to reciprocate.  I do believe that the troubling aspects of his relationship with Argento were among many other causal factors that factored into his decision.  Some have criticized the filmmakers for blaming Argento for Bourdain’s death.  I think the filmmakers showed a lot of restraint.  They didn’t even get into the rumors that Bourdain paid a child actor $380k to drop charges of sexual abuse against Argento.

Last year, I saw Robin’s Wish, a documentary about Robin Williams.  I highly recommend seeing it if you’re a Robin Williams fan.  The documentary shows how Williams went from an overnight sensation to an Academy Award winner.  He acted in several highly successful films, and was loved by people all over the world.  When his brain became ravaged by Lewy body dementia, he lost the ability to work and worst of all, his sharp-witted mind.  When his wife described the final year of his life, I could understand why Williams took his own life.  He was depressed over how his life was being taken away from him.  The disease was destroying his life and his mind.  Since there was no cure or treatment, he was trapped in a life that he could not change.  He was surrounded by friends and family who loved him, but he decided to take his own life anyway.

I believe that in the end, Bourdain may have felt the same way as Williams.  He was trapped in a life he could not escape, depressed over how it had turned out, in spite of his best efforts.  What was most troubling about both of them, was that they were surrounded by people who loved them, but they still felt alone in their suffering.  They believed they had no way to alleviate their pain and depression but to end their lives.  If only they believed what others told them on a daily basis, that they weren’t alone, that the pain they felt was often felt by others, and that it could be overcome.  The lives of Bourdain and Williams may have ended tragically, but fortunately for us, they will live on in the works they left behind.

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