The Anthony Bourdain Documentary Feels Like One Last Message From Beyond
It's easy enough to wonder what Anthony Bourdain would have thought of "Roadrunner," the new documentary chronicling his unusual and unique life. The man was famous for his opinions. (He once declared that he would serve "hemlock" to Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump and in three famous words uncompromisingly condemned the film "Baby Driver.")
Even in the documentary itself, interviewees wonder out loud what Tony would think of the whole affair. Those of us who only knew him through the screen may like to think we would know.
Bourdain's brand was strong: sardonic, smart, and yet sincere. He had the swagger to call out large corporations yet the compassion to defend the undocumented kitchen worker. And you got the feeling that he was honest — despite the whole, you know, being a highly paid TV host thing. We felt like we knew him. In a way, perhaps we did.
At some point — the exact point is almost imperceptible — Bourdain's career became less about encouraging people to travel than about the audience's connection with him. Fans tuned in week after week as Bourdain fulfilled our fantasies of exploration, becoming the embodiment of "The Quiet American" abroad. We satisfied our desire for adventure without ever leaving our couches, loving the man who went out and explored the world for us, bringing back tales of all the ways America had f-cked up abroad (and even at home).
For those among us who clung to Bourdain's every dispatch, "Roadrunner" does the one thing we've been wanting since June 2018: it provides something new from a voice we deeply miss.
Bourdain is omnipresent throughout the documentary. At times, it almost feels like a final episode of Parts Unknown, thanks to voiceovers and footage from abroad set to a good ol' rock-n-roll soundtrack. Fans who have spent the last three years watching and rewatching everything the man has ever done may feel like they're finally getting one last message from beyond. That message seems to be: the best job in the world reveals the harshest, most human truths.
Throughout the documentary, Bourdain emerges as a man obsessed with truth. Truth and integrity at all costs. The last seasons of Parts Unknown felt less like a travel TV show and more like a glimpse into Bourdain's mind. He made art and elevated the potential of what travel journalism could do. As the show went on, it illuminated not only the darkest corners of the globe (Armenia, Laos, West Virginia) but the darkest recesses of its host's mind — even going so far as to film a psychoanalysis session in Buenos Aires after his second divorce. As his friend (and fellow chef) David Chang notes in the documentary: "It was almost never about the food. I think it was about Tony learning to be a better person."
But Bourdain's evolution as a thinker, writer, observer, and human was propelled by a thirst as romantic as it was destructive. He is often described as restless.
One of Bourdain's most famous quotes starts off: "Travel changes you." He continues to expound upon the relationship between self and world, how those two things change each other. He wasn't wrong. Travel does change a person. But a life on the road is not the same as travel. And an unmoored life is a difficult one. He had to navigate the business of being a complicated human without the tethers of a steady routine, steady people, or steady environment. Often, friends interviewed for the documentary speak of digital communication with Bourdain, pained emails sent from far-flung corners of the globe.
As his shows grew more popular, Bourdain ruminated on the effect they had on the local cultures he was trying to explore. "He began to question who was benefiting from these shows," his agent explains. But the documentary does little to ruminate on the effect the show had on its host. Or that a figure who personified hunger itself could become a thing consumed by the appetite he awakened in others.
Bourdain became recognizable practically everywhere he went. He was beloved. He became agoraphobic. Towards the end of his life, Bourdain told Tom Vitale, one of the show's directors, that if he could make his ideal episode of Parts Unknown, he wouldn't be in it at all. It would just be "his point of view, a camera moving through space," Vitale says in the documentary.
In watching Parts Unknown, a viewer never forgot that the world is a painful place. But pain was not a good enough reason to stop looking. Bourdain forced his audience to sit with the discomfort of the consequences of war, colonization, corporate greed, and power struggles. And he never attempted to salve the burn.
"Roadrunner," however, attempts to explain away the pain of its subject's life. It tries to tie a neat bow around his final act. And that may be the only thing that Bourdain would have hated about the documentary.
The last half of the film seems to operate under the assumption that we are all headed to the theatre to ask, "Why?" And instead of acknowledging the unknowability of another person's mind, "Roadrunner" attempts to give us an easy answer: he was predisposed to it, had joked about it for a long time, he was tired, his relationship was the last straw, and then he just broke. As far as answers go, it's certainly believable. But what good does projecting this narrative around the world do?
There are obvious holes in the documentary. It is largely unconcerned with the first 40 years of its subject's life, flippant in the dissolution of his 30-year marriage to his first wife, and hell-bent on creating a narrative of Bourdain's last years that makes his final act "make sense."
I do not aim to attack how people process sudden, complicated grief. I only aim to say: I will remember Bourdain as a figure who encompassed curiosity, uncompromising integrity, and compassion without borders. What happened at the end is not nearly as compelling as the decades he spent tasting, seeing, and being in the world.
The planet is richer for having had Anthony Bourdain on it. And, despite its shortcomings, "Roadrunner" is a poignant reminder of just how much we lost.
"Roadrunner" is available for viewing on Prime Video and was recently released on DVD.
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