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Anthony Bourdain was in his forties when he first rose to fame. A lot of people don’t realize it. He had lived a cook’s life – hot, sweaty, messy, sometimes ugly – and had written a book about it. He was still online when this book, Confidential Kitchen, click on the bestseller list. He learned about it over the phone. He moved away from his post, from the stampede, his knives and his 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 Roadrunner, the new documentary by Oscar winner Morgan Neville on the life, fame, fame and death of Bourdain.
It covers 20 years, this film. More or less. He largely ignores the early Bourdains, the young Bourdain, the pre-famous Bourdain, instead focusing on those years when the whole world knew his name. It’s not so much the climb as it is the summit – which spans almost two decades. Here is this guy, it says. He’s dead now, but you probably knew him. Or thought you did. Or thought you did. This is what he really was.
I thought I knew him a little. I was wrong. I read the books, watched the shows, saw him talk, like you. I met him, spoke with him, spent a night on the loading dock behind a restaurant in New Mexico drinking beers and having a bowl with him and the rest of the crew. cooking after a book signing I drove home with his driver while he fell asleep in the backseat, but there are a thousand people who can probably claim the same. The man shook many hands in his time. He bent a lot of elbows. He spoke and spoke and spoke. One of the most remarkable things about him (and I know it’s true) is that none of it was an act. The person he was on your TV? This was the person he was when he returned home at night (or, more likely, returned to his hotel). He was curious, funny, angry, awkward, and weird. He had read a lot of books and seen a lot of movies, and all of them lived forever in his head.
Roadrunner brings together the people who knew him best – most of them, anyway (there are a few very notable exceptions, like 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 are all there to tell their stories, to explain it – and then admit that they never could. To praise him and say how much they loved him, then dissolve in fury at its end.
Bourdain was honest and that anger is honest, and the film doesn’t shy away from it. He doesn’t look away from much. He honors his subject by presenting it as flawed when it was flawed, exhausted when it was exhausted, cruel when it was cruel, and like all of us, he was sometimes these things. It’s just that he lived his life on television.
At first Bourdain really didn’t know what he was doing
At the start there is a little moment that maybe means more than anything else in the whole movie. It’s easy to miss. A passing commentary almost lost in the frantic energy of takeoff trying to capture the debut of the stardom that would become Bourdain.
Speaking for the camera, laughing and staring wide-eyed at her ridiculous youth, ridiculous daring, Lydia Tenaglia (longtime producer and Bourdain partner, with her husband, Chris Collins) recounts how Bourdain, when they accepted a travel show together, was a disaster as a host. Shy, introverted, confused, nervous. He didn’t want to talk, she said, this man who later seemed to never stop. He is seen unresponsive to a tea service, aimlessly wandering the night streets, trying to sleep – an oversized creature in a tiny hotel bed in Japan.
And then she says what they – her and Collins – quickly learned was that Bourdain had no idea what he was doing. It was just after Confidential Kitchen, and he had hardly gone anywhere by that time, he had seen almost nothing but fryer baskets, shallots in the pan, the alley behind a New York bistro sucking cigarettes and while awaiting delivery of fish.
She said everything he knew about the world beyond was borrowed. Second hand. It came from a life of consumerism – books, movies, comics, lyrics. It came from dream about a bigger world he thought he would never get the chance to see. And that if the show (which has become many shows, many books, all done with a lot of the same people who were there at the beginning, most of whom show up here, for the ending) was going to be anything, it had to be something. something different. Not a food show, not a travel show, but a show about a man who has been given a golden ticket to step out into the real world and see how he compares to his fantasies.
It hurts. It made me wince. Because there was a man who compared the world to his image of the world and finally, after hundreds of thousands of miles and years of researching, couldn’t stay. Her friends say it was a bad night. But her words, delivered in a ghostly voiceover, were perhaps the truest truth in two hours of often painful honesty: “You’re probably going to find out anyway, so here’s a little preemptive truth: has no happy ending. “
Like the man said – there is no happy ending
At the end of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the good, the weird one, 1971, Gene Wilder), Wonka, Charlie Bucket and Papy Joe are all ride in the glass elevator, soar over the city. Charlie survived the chocolate factory. He passed all the tests, proved himself to be good, honest and true. And Wonka just told him that the factory is his – that he’s going to learn all the secrets, get all the chocolate, whatever.
At the end, however, Wonka takes Charlie by the shoulders and tells him, “Remember what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he ever wanted.”
“What happened?” Charlie asks.
“He lived happily ever after.”
This scene haunts me. I think about it a lot. I think about it even more since I saw Roadrunner.
Anthony Bourdain was given to the whole world. A lot of people probably think he was the luckiest ***** mother on earth. According to Willy Wonka, he should have lived happily ever after.
He did not do it.
There are no answers in Roadrunner. This is not his goal. But Bourdain has lived a remarkable and improbable life. He witnessed things even when he knew they would hurt him. He was telling the truth even when it was hard. Maybe he went too far, or maybe he never got to go far enough, but he went out to look at the world that was given to him and brought all of us who wanted to accompany him. Roadrunner points out that the journey is not about the destination, just as a story is not just about its end. You start out stupid and end up wise, and everything in between? This is all important. He all Questions. And the best thing you can do is be honest about it no matter the cost.
In the conclusion, artist and longtime friend of Bourdain’s Dave Choe ends things with a fitting tribute as the soundtrack rings out and the film rolls around. It might seem strange not wanting to reveal the end of a documentary about someone whose ending is already known, but trust me. Worth seeing fresh. It’s a moving moment, made of all the things Bourdain lived for. It’s cathartic. Chaotic. Destructive. Amusing. Probably illegal. It’s fantastic. This is real. And that leaves the world a little better before it all turns black, which Bourdain would have appreciated, I think.
If only he had stayed long enough to see it.
Jason Sheehan knows his stuff about food, video games, books and Star blazers. He is a restaurant critic at Philadelphia cream magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales of the Radiation Age is his latest book.