Fakery and missing lovers: why the Anthony Bourdain documentary leaves a bad taste in the mouth

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Anthony Bourdain in the documentary about his life, Roadrunner - Focus Features
Anthony Bourdain in the documentary about his life, Roadrunner - Focus Features

Anthony Bourdain was almost universally beloved and respected. So why has a documentary about the Kitchen Confidential author and Parts Unknown presenter, who died by suicide in June 2018, become mired in controversy? A movie about the life and times of the effusive New Yorker should have been the ultimate can’t fail project. And yet Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain has become divisive in a way that Bourdain, for all his demons and addictions (including crack cocaine and heroin habits), never was in life.

According to those who have seen it, the problems with Roadrunner are numerous. One is director Morgan Neville’s decision to frame Bourdain’s death as a pulpy whodunnit.

“In deciding to treat his subject as a mystery he’s trying to solve, director Morgan Neville makes some ugly choices when it comes to that subject’s suicide, before veering off into a conclusion that’s more cathartic,” says a review in Vulture.

“When the film approaches the final years of Bourdain’s life, it starts to lose sight of him amid the sense of betrayal felt by so many people close to him. As it tries to piece together his mental and emotional state in the time leading up to his death, its attempts to find reasons for what happened next start settling helplessly around the messy figure of Asia Argento.”

Argento was Bourdain’s girlfriend in the years leading up to his death. However, in June 2018, days before he died, Italian tabloids published images of her romantically intertwined with another man. The paparazzo who took the pictures later expressed his regret. “A picture is not worth a life,” he said. “If that shot triggered suicide…this would make me suffer.”

As Bourdain’s partner, Argento was clearly a key figure in his final months. And that is without even factoring the suggestion she might bear some sort of moral culpability for his emotional decline. But while her name obviously comes up in Roadrunner, Neville decided not to interview her. It's an omission he has felt obliged to explain.

“The Asia story is insanely complicated,” Neville told Vanity Fair. “And if you go and read all the news stories, and kind of go into it, every question you bring up… brings up 10 more questions… What I included was a fraction of what was there. So if people think there’s a lot, let me tell you, there is very little compared to what’s there… And I think I was very fair with having seen all the facts. I’m very comfortable with what I did.”

“Complicated” hardly begins to do justice to the relationship. While shooting a No Reservations episode in Rome, Bourdain had become besotted with Argento, daughter of the Seventies horror film-maker Dario Argento. In February 2017, the US gossip press reported they had “fallen in love”. “Just a perfect day…You made me forget myself,” Bourdain wrote of Argento on Instagram, quoting a Lou Reed lyric.

Of course Reed’s Perfect Day was rumoured to be about heroin. And friends worries Bourdain’s love affair with Argento had an aspect of the addictions he had fought through his life.

More worryingly, his feelings for Argento began to cross into the professional realm. When a member of his Parts Unknown crew fell ill shooting in Hong Kong in early 2018, Bourdain pushed for Argento to step in and direct the episode.

Anthony Bourdain with his girlfriend Asia Argento, in 2017 - Getty
Anthony Bourdain with his girlfriend Asia Argento, in 2017 - Getty

The allegation is that Argento approached Parts Unknown as though she were making a scripted drama. There were heated disagreements with the rest of the team, leading Bourdain to fire his long-running cinematographer Zach Zamboni. “When Tony fired Zach, it was a huge red flag,” Parts Unknown producer Helen Cho tells Neville in his film. “Because if he’s going to do that to someone like him, anyone in the inner circle is essentially disposable.”

Bourdain later seemed to twist the knife by posting to social media a picture of himself and Argento with Zamboni’s replacement, Christopher Doyle. The caption read: “Dream Team”.

The Hong Kong instalment was a huge departure for Parts Unknown. However, Bourdain talked about it as if it were the defining experience of his career. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, he described it as, “the most intensely satisfying experience of my professional life and a show that I am giddily, ecstatically proud”.

He killed himself several weeks later. Neville, speaking to Rolling Stone, did not believe the suicide was planned in advance. "It was,” he said, “a very unpremeditated act. He was giving notes on edits that afternoon. He was making lunch reservations with a friend for the next week.

“People say that when people go into a suicidal episode, they last about 90 minutes. I just think he was in a remote part of the world, by himself, and he had a depressive moment and just did something that… I know he had those thoughts before. He wrote about it. He had been talking about [killing himself] forever. I just don’t think anybody ever thought he would actually do it.”

Argento had been one of the first to speak out against sex abuser Harvey Weinstein, saying she had been raped by him at Cannes in 1997 when she was 21. Bourdain became a fierce advocate on her behalf and of the MeToo movement. He attacked on twitter actors such as Matt Damon, who had stayed silent about Weinstein’s crimes.

Anthony Bourdain in London, 2013 - Phil Coburn
Anthony Bourdain in London, 2013 - Phil Coburn

“I met one extraordinary woman with an extraordinary and painful story, who introduced me to a lot of other women with extraordinary stories,” said Bourdain. “And suddenly it was personal.”

And yet there were complications. Two months after Bourdain’s death it emerged that he had paid $380,000 to ensure the silence of actor Jimmy Bennett, who had accused Argento of sexual assault. Argento was fired from her job judging X Factor Italy shortly afterwards.

“Bennett knew my boyfriend, Anthony Bourdain, was a man of great perceived wealth and had his own reputation as a beloved public figure to protect,” she said in a statement. “Antony [sic] insisted the matter be handled privately and this was also what Bennett wanted. Anthony was afraid of the possible negative publicity that such person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us. We decided to deal compassionately with Bennett’s demand for help and give it to him.”

With all of that, Argento might feel that the director did her a disservice in not allowing her give her side of the story. “People say I murdered him. They say I killed him,” she had told the Daily Mail. “I understand that the world needs to find a reason. I would like to find a reason too. I don’t have it”.

Bourdain was the last of a vanishing breed of hard-living, larger-than-life storytellers. Born in Manhattan in 1956, he dropped out of university to work in restaurants. The chaos, the late nights and the intense pressure appealed to him – and there was plenty of time to develop a dependency on heroin, which he did age 24.

He eventually quit drugs and ascended to the highest peaks of American fine-dining and in 1998 became executive chef at Brasserie Les Halles in New York. All while battling the chronic depression that been with him through his adult life.

The chef had seen a few things in his career. And in 2000, he shared with the world the unexpurgated truth about the industry in the bestselling Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.

Anthony Bourdain dining with Barack Obama in Vietnam for an episode of Parts Unknown
Anthony Bourdain dining with Barack Obama in Vietnam for an episode of Parts Unknown

An instant bestseller, the book opened the doors to television. In 2005, he presented Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on the Travel Channel. Eight years later, he moved to CNN to front Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. He was working on a segment for the series when he died in a Strasbourg hotel three years ago.

But Bourdain was more than just a chef or a TV personality. He became an ambassador for the concept of living well and eating well. And he added a component of punk rebellion to the idea of what a chef could be. Gordon Ramsay got there first (his shouty mini-series Boiling Point aired in 1999) yet each was arguably as important in catalysing the notion of high-end cooking as the second coming of rock’ n roll.

He cultivated fans and friends in high places, too. In 2016, he was joined for a Parts Unknown special in Hanoi by US President Barack Obama. They clinked beer bottles and tuck into a spread of noodles. After Bourdain’s death, Obama tweeted that the presenter, “taught us about food" and "its ability to bring us together”.

The controversy around Roadrunner doesn’t begin or end with Argento. Watching the movie, the New Yorker’s Helen Rosner was struck by a scene in which a friend of Bourdain’s, David Choe, still grappling with his death, reads an email from Bourdain. “Choe begins reading, then the voice fades into Bourdain’s own: “…and my life is sort of s___ now”,” wrote Rosner. “'You are successful, and I am successful, and I’m wondering: Are you happy?’ I asked Neville how on earth he’d found an audio recording of Bourdain reading his own e-mail.”

He hadn’t. Instead Neville had used computer software to “deep fake” simulate Bourdain’s voice. “If you watch the film, other than that line you mentioned, you probably don’t know what the other lines are that were spoken by the AI, and you’re not going to know,” Neville elaborated to The New Yorker. “We can have a documentary-ethics panel about it later.”

Many people feel this debate should happen right now. One issue is the director’s assertion that the deep fake narration had the blessing of Bourdain’s family. Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, Bourdain’s widow and executor of his estate, loudly objected: “I certainly was not the one who said Tony would have been cool with that.”

Bourdain would surely have objected too. As a television presenter, he despised cheesiness and manufactured drama. Filming a Parts Unknown segment in Sicily, he notoriously lost his temper with his crew after a local fisherman chucked dead octopus in the water to make it look as if he had “caught” them in a fishing expedition. Either Bourdain really caught something or he did not – there was to be no artifice.

Neville’s use of a computer simulation of Bourdain’s voice has plunged the documentary industry into something of an existential crisis. “Of all the ethical concerns one can have about a documentary, this seems rather trivial,” said Gordon Quinn, executive producer of Hoop Dreams and Minding the Gap, told the New York Times. “It’s 2021, and these technologies are out there.”

Others disagree. “This sucks!” Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel said on twitter Twitter. Critic Sean Burns concurred: “I feel like this tells you all you need to know about the ethics of the people behind this project.”

Whatever about the morality, the sad fact is that a film about Bourdain’s life has become just another tawdry internet talking point. Only his closest friend and family can say with certainty how Bourdain would have liked to have been remembered. But it’s obvious that the unfortunate spat about a documentary has clouded his legacy. Even in death he has been denied the peace for which he searched all his life.