Suicide Watch

‘Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain’ explores the life and loss of a culinary cultural icon

Iggy Pop’s molten eyes focus on Anthony Bourdain’s. The two men, grizzled elders, toast each other with a glass of white wine. Pop digs into a plate of barbecued shrimp; Bourdain cuts into a piece of roast pork. In the voiceover for this 2015 episode of his CNN series Parts Unknown, Bourdain notes the irony of this genteel scene. He acknowledges that both men are famous for the excesses of their early lives. The second, more successful half of Bourdain’s professional career started after the publication of his revelatory memoir Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (2000).

As in most of his later work, the meals featured in Bourdain’s television series are secondary. What’s of primary interest to him, and to his viewers, are the ruminations that result from Bourdain’s quest. In his unsentimental way, he sets out to sympathize, to learn and to connect with the various people sitting across the table from him. He arrives on the scene as a chef, tasting delicacies while travelling the globe, but his reports aren’t culinary reviews. Bourdain doesn’t ask Pop if he’s enjoying the shrimp. He asks him, “What thrills you?” When Pop replies, “Being loved. And actually appreciating the people who are giving it to me,” Bourdain holds a forced smile on his face. 

In Morgan Neville’s documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the director includes this snippet before cutting to more footage of a protagonist who’s always on the go. Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) doesn’t try to analyse Bourdain’s baffled expression at the end of his exchange with Pop. The director assembles dozens of outtakes from Bourdain’s life, splicing them together with interviews featuring his friends, family members and coworkers. But Roadrunner isn’t just an attempt to sum up a life. There’s an angrily drawn, tear-stained question mark blurring every frame of the narrative. Why did Bourdain commit suicide in 2018? 

As in many allegorical quests, Neville, despite his pure-hearted searching, never nails down an answer. Bourdain’s first wife—of 20 years—Nancy Putkoski, only appears silently in home movies. Whatever insights she might have shared publicly, Putkoski has, perhaps wisely, kept to herself. His younger brother Christopher is an amiable presence on screen, but unhelpful when it comes to sharing anecdotes about their early family life. Without Putkoski’s commentary, or that of his late parents, Roadrunner becomes elegiac, a testimonial to the man’s strengths, flaws and frailties. 

At the same time, Neville has established and defined Bourdain’s status as a cultural icon. The wall of funerary flowers placed in his honor at Brasserie Les Halles, where the former chef used to work in New York City, rivalled the many bouquets received by Princess Diana’s sainted ghost at Buckingham Palace.

To construct a tragic myth with lasting resonance, the storyteller, perforce, must include a villain. The Italian actress Asia Argento fills the Guinevere or Yoko Ono role in Roadrunner. After Bourdain meets Argento, he’s portrayed as a bewitched victim. She’s a tempting seductress who betrays and therefore destroys him. Helen M. Cho, a crew member on No Reservations, describes a shoot in Hong Kong where Argento asserts her authority on an episode she’s directing. Everyone is shocked that Bourdain submits to her and then proceeds to fire those crew members who refuse to comply with Argento. Their relationship changed the dynamics of the production. She’s considered the catalyst that led to Bourdain’s suicidal despair. Her own public rebuttals to this portrayal are not included in the film.

David Choe, an artist and friend of Bourdain’s, reminds the audience that Anthony used to be a heroin addict. Roadrunner also demonstrates that whatever sober activity Bourdain was interested in throughout his life, he pursued it obsessively, doggedly, until he had exhausted every angle of its novelty. Then he moved on to the next thing. But the next thing, and the thing after that, didn’t satisfy Bourdain. Neville includes reel after reel of Bourdain gazing into the camera, philosophizing into a visual diary. They are a record of his external thoughts, his decency and his infirm sense of agency. When he appeared on screen, Bourdain hid as much as he gave away.

“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain” opens in theaters July 16. focusfeatures.com/roadrunner

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