Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Searcher

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain (2021) - Neville roadrunner Anthony Bourdain's death 3 years ago, by an apparent suicide, shocked many lives he touched around the world and left his fans asking why. Why would a well loved and respected celebrity chef, award-winning author, TV journeyman kill himself so suddenly? Documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom, Won't You be My Neighbor) attempts to give us some insights with Roadrunner, a comprehensive documentary that includes many interviews from Bourdain's family, friends and colleagues.

As I became a New Yorker in the late 90s, I witnessed Anthony Bourdain's rise to fame: a head chef of now closed Midtown East French bistro Les Halles (my late father-in-law’s favorite restaurant) to a best selling author to an acclaimed cable TV show host. He embodied that quintessential New York cool - edgy, charismatic, foul-mouthed, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking and cultured. It was his effortlessly cool persona that a lot of us wanted to emulate. Reading his Kitchen Confidential, a close-up account of behind the scenes activities in New York's restaurant industry, written in breathlessly sardonic humor and frankness, taught me a thing or two to live by- such as, never order seafood on Mondays, never order your steak well-done and so on. We witnessed his evolution over the years as not only a mere chef and travel guide, but a cultural and political ambassador with great empathy and appreciation for different cultures and people, through his subsequent cable shows - A Cook's Tour on Food Network, No Reservations on Travel Channel and Parts Unknown on CNN. He instinctively understood food as a universal language and a great conversation starter.

Bourdain, being on TV for almost 20 years, traveling became his day-to-day life and the TV crew his family. It's the wealth of footage, both what's in his shows and what's left out, Neville uses to the fullest, to paint an overarching picture of a complicated man. The film chronicles from his early days: at the Culinary Institute of America, Les Halles, talk show appearances after Kitchen Confidential’s success, a life long partnership with a TV producer couple (Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, both of whom interviewed extensively) who produced his shows, to his many relationships over the years and his shifting worldview. Multiple directors and crewmembers he worked with over the years have many stories to tell. So does many of his famous chef friends - David Chang, Éric Ripert and David Choe among them.

Despite his cocky persona on screen, Bourdain respected and embraced different culture and its people. He knew how to read the room and not come across as arrogant American abroad. There were many memorable Bourdain episodes that are some of the best that TV can offer. The episode in Beirut, in Vietnam with President Barak Obama, in Sichuan with a renouned French chef Éric Ripert, in Hong Kong with WKW cinematograher Chris Doyle are some of my favorites. It was his straightforward approach that won many of his idols friendship- Éric Ripert, musicians John Lurie and Iggy Pop. And they talk about their encounter and friendship. His love for cinema was on display as he referenced many of his favorite films in the show- notably, Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Wong Kar-Wai films.

There was a shift in tone in his shows after being in the middle of regional conflict in Beirut in 2006; he and his crew got marrooned in a hotel room and watched the bombings in horror. The document of their experience and reaction was nominated for an Emmy. His show became something more than about food for foodies. His worldview became more embittered as the result of that experience. Later on in his CNN days, he got to explore more in troubled destinations and the implications of him going there that pushed the bounderies of what food travel show could achieve.

As the documentary goes along, the narrative emerges: a boy who never got over his romantic notion of life and a man continually searching for something different. Bourdain was married to his high school sweetheart Nancy Pukoski for twenty years. Then he had a daughter with his second wife Ottavia Busia (right after Beirut episode).

But constant traveling put a strain on his newfound family life. Then closer to his end, he fell madly in love with a volatile actress Asia Argento who later was embroiled in #MeToo movement and had to face her own very public scandal. As a self-acknowledged former drug addict, he exchanged traveling to exotic and dangerous places as its substitute for drugs. But when he's been to every corner of the globe and not finding what he was looking for, he needed another substitute. He may have found his fix, in dark and damaged Argento. The documentary paints the picture of a disillusioned man who couldn't reconcile the romantic notion of life and harsh, ugly realities.

In telling interviews, where many of them break down in tears, it seems Bourdain was in a dark place in his later days. He apparently told David Chang that he would never be a good dad. Chang, fighting back the tears, admits that Bourdain was obviously projecting, but the words from his friend hurt him nonetheless.

Always stoic and private Ripert, who found Bourdain's body when they were doing an episode in France, is understandably tightlipped about the circumstances and what Bourdain told him beforehand.

There were people who are instinctively attracted to darkness. The heart of darkness might have been always with Bourdain. His sudden suicide put a spotlight on mental health and the importance of suicide prevention.

Bourdain touched many lives around the globe. His legacy is reflected in so many people who mourned his death- not only fans and friends, but many low wage restaurant workers he championed as the real heroes, many small restaurant start-ups owned by people of color in the States.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain attempts to give us some much needed closures. And it succeeds in some ways. But the wounds his death left in us who loved him will not heal any time soon.

Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Boudain opens in theaters Friday 7/16. Please visit Focus Features' website for more info.

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