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Anthony Bourdain, in road runner, the new documentary about his life. CNN/Focus Features hide caption
Anthony Bourdain, in road runner, the new documentary about his life.
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Anthony Bourdain was in his forties when he became famous. Many people don’t realize that. He’d lived the life of a cook—hot, sweaty, messy, sometimes ugly—and wrote a book about it. He was still on the line when that book, Kitchen confidential, press the bestseller list. He found out over the phone. He stepped away from his post, the rush, his knives and pans, to take the call, laugh, splash water on his face. There was a camera there to capture it, and the footage ended up in road runner, the new Oscar winner documentary Morgan Neville, about the life, fame, stardom and death of Bourdain.
It spans 20 years, this movie. More or less. It largely ignores the early Bourdain, the young Bourdain, the pre-fame Bourdain, focusing instead on those years when the whole world knew his name. It’s not so much about the turnout as it is about the summit – stretching over almost two decades. here is this guy, it says. He’s dead now, but you probably knew him. Or thought so. Or thought you did. This is who he really was.
I thought I knew him a little. I was wrong. I read the books, watched the shows, saw him speak, just like you. I met him, spoke to him, spent a night on the loading dock behind a New Mexico restaurant, drank beer and gave a bowl to him and the rest of the kitchen crew after an autograph session, took a ride home with his driver while he fell asleep in the back seat, but there are a thousand people who can probably argue the same. The man shook hands a lot during his time. He bent elbows a lot. He talked and talked and talked. One of the most remarkable things about him (and I know this is true) is that it wasn’t an act. The person he was on your TV? That was the person he was when he went home at night (or, more likely, back to his hotel). He was curious, funny, angry, crazy and weird. He had read many books and seen many movies, and they all lived in his head forever.
I met him, talked to him, spent a night in the loading dock behind a New Mexico restaurant, drank beer and passed a bowl with him… but there are a thousand people who could probably say the same thing.
road runner gathers the people who knew him best – most of them anyway (there are some very notable exceptions, such as Bourdain’s last girlfriend, Asia Argento, and his first wife, Nancy Putkoski). Friends, partners, chefs, members of his team, his second wife, his brother. They’re all there to tell their story, explain to him – and then admit they never could. To praise him and say how much they loved him, and then dissolve in anger at his end.
Bourdain was honest, and that anger is fair, and the movie doesn’t look away from it. It doesn’t look like anything. It honors the subject by presenting him as flawed when flawed, exhausted when exhausted, cruel when cruel, and like each of us, he was sometimes those things. Only he lived his life on television.
Early on, there’s a little moment that might mean more than anything in the entire movie. It’s easy to miss. A passing comment almost lost in the frenetic launch energy of trying to capture the beginnings of the celebrity Bourdain would become.
Speaking into the camera, smiling and wide-eyed at its ridiculous youth, its ridiculous audacity, Lydia Tenaglia (longtime producer and partner of Bourdain’s, along with her husband, Chris Collins) recounts how Bourdain, when she first agreed to doing a travel show together, was a disaster as a presenter. Shy, introverted, confused, nervous. He wouldn’t talk, she says—this man who never seemed to stop afterward. There are recordings of him unresponsive to a tea set, wandering aimlessly through nighttime streets, trying to sleep – an oversized creature in a small hotel bed in Japan.
And then she says that what she – she and Collins – quickly learned was that Bourdain had no idea what he was doing. This was right after Kitchen confidential, and he’d been almost nowhere at that point, barely seeing anything that wasn’t frying baskets, shallots in the pan, the alleyway behind an NYC bistro as he sucked in cigarettes and waited for the fish to be delivered.
She said everything he knew about the world out there was borrowed. Second-hand. It came from a lifetime of consuming – books, movies, comics, lyrics. It came from to dream about a bigger world he thought he could never see. And that if the show (which became many shows, many books, all done with many of the same people that had been there at the beginning, most of whom showed up here, for the denouement) was ever going to be something, it had to be something else. to be. Not a food show, not a travel show, but a show about a man who got a Golden Ticket to go out into the real world and see how it related to his fantasies.
That hurts. It made me shudder. For here was a man who compared the world to his view of the world and finally, after hundreds of thousands of miles and years devoted to watching, could not stay. His friends say it was a bad night. But his words, given in ghostly voiceover, were arguably the truest truth in two hours of often-painful honesty: “You’ll probably figure it out anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth-telling: There’s no happy ending.”
At the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the good, the freaky one, 1971, Gene Wilder), Wonka, Charlie Bucket and Grandpa Joe are all ride in the glass elevator, floating over the city. Charlie survived the chocolate factory. He has passed every test, proved that he is good and honest and true. And Wonka just told him the factory is his – that he’s going to learn all the secrets, get all the chocolate, whatever.
But at the end, Wonka grabs Charlie by the shoulders and tells him, “Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”
“What happened?” asks Charlie.
“He lived happily ever after.”
That scene haunts me. I think about it a lot. I’ve been thinking about it even more since I saw it road runner.
‘Roadrunner’ makes it clear that the journey is not about the destination, just like a story is not just about the end. You start out stupid and you end up wise, and everything in between? It’s all important. It all matters.
Anthony Bourdain got the whole world. A lot of people probably think he was the luckiest motherfucker on the planet. According to Willy Wonka, he should have lived happily ever after.
There are no answers in road runner. That’s not his goal. But Bourdain lived a remarkable, improbable life. He testified to things even when he knew they would hurt him. He told the truth, even when it was difficult. Maybe he went too far, or maybe he could never go far enough, but he went out to look at the world that was given to him and brought with him any of us who wanted to go with him. road runner makes it clear that the journey is not about the destination, just as a story is not just about the end. You start out stupid and you end up wise, and everything in between? Her all important. It all Affairs. And the best thing you can do is be honest about it, no matter the cost.
In closing, artist and longtime friend of Bourdain’s Dave Choe closes the case with a fitting tribute as the soundtrack blares and the film ends. It may seem strange not to want to give away the ending of a documentary about someone whose ending is already known, but trust me. Worth seeing fresh. It’s a touching moment, made of all the things Bourdain lived for. It is purifying. Chaotic. destructive. Fun. Probably illegal. It’s fantastic. Her for real. And it leaves the world a little bit better before everything goes black, which I think Bourdain would have appreciated.
If only he’d stuck around long enough to see it.
Jason Sheehan knows things about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He is the restaurant reviewer at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Stories from the radiation age is his latest book.
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