November 26, 2021

Film

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

By Matthew Clayfield

Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative

I was always going to like Morgan Neville’s Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. I was predisposed to like it. Anyone who devoured Bourdain’s work, and who still hasn’t quite gotten over his 2018 death, was predisposed to like it. It was made for them.

The outpouring of grief that followed Bourdain’s passing, though not, perhaps, unique in its intensity, has proven unique in its longevity, in the way it has failed to dissipate. One suspects this has something to do with the manner of his death, and the fact that it still seems not to square with his life as it was popularly understood and portrayed on screen.

Putting aside the obvious fallacy contained in this assumption – that Bourdain’s on-screen portrayal was anything more than a glossy entertainment product and somehow precluded things ending this way – it remains true that, at the time, his suicide seemed incomprehensible. In the years since, as people have gone back to the books and the television work, to the interviews and Instagram stories, that incomprehensibility has come to seem short-sighted, a failure of close reading. The darkness was always on full display. Nevertheless, the wound has failed to heal.

Roadrunner, which was released in US theatres in July and is now in selected Australian cinemas, does not come anywhere close to healing it. Lack of resolution or explanation is not only appropriate in this case – though the film makes a few tilts at the latter – but seems only fitting given the grey area in which Bourdain’s best work operated. As one of his producers, Christopher Collins, notes in his discussion about the award-winning “Anthony Bourdain in Beirut” episode of No Reservations, ambiguity was something the man embraced. But if catharsis and revelation are not the point of Roadrunner, what, one finds oneself wondering, is? If it is merely to spend more time in Bourdain’s presence – the reason I found myself liking the documentary even as my problems with it mounted – his television work is there for the streaming. There is something else going on here.

Due to my own obsession, and not knowing when I would get to see the film, I didn’t hesitate to read up on it before sitting down to watch it. I thus went into it already aware of the two main controversies surrounding its release: that Neville used artificial intelligence to recreate Bourdain’s voice, with the result that Bourdain narrates three pieces of private writing and correspondence that he never recorded while he was alive; and that Neville did not approach Bourdain’s last romantic partner, Asia Argento, for an interview.

Both controversies are about means rather than ends, not to mention about the cavalier way in which Neville has publicly discussed his decisions and dismissed people’s concerns. As regards the three artificial voice-overs, Neville could and probably should have signposted them as deep fakes in the film. Instead, with one exception, he has declined to say what the fake recordings are, though they are easy enough to pick when you’re listening for them. (Fake Bourdain has a certain tonal flatness about him.) As such, Neville has parked the film in the middle of a wider debate about the dangers of deep-fake content, which he didn’t need to do. But more curious than that is his decision to use the deep fakes in the first place: not one of them is load bearing. This, even more than the ethics of their use, is the primary point against them.

The criticism related to the film’s treatment of Argento is more valid. While one doubts that Argento would have agreed to an interview, not even approaching her seems, at best, like a failure of due diligence, and at worst like a capitulation to the self-appointed guardians of Bourdain’s legacy. One is not exactly going out on a limb to suggest that the latter is more likely.

While it certainly makes one queasy to hear others speaking about Bourdain and Argento’s relationship without either of them on hand to discuss it themselves, it nevertheless remains true that her treatment on screen is about as good as you can expect given she was not involved in the project. Neville and his interviewees do wade about in some murky territory – the film shares the opinion of Bourdain’s colleagues that Argento was the Yoko Ono to his John Lennon – but all go out of their way to note that Bourdain had not been okay for a long time prior to Argento’s arrival on the scene. The behind-the-scenes footage from Parts Unknown’s Hong Kong episode, which Bourdain enlisted Argento to direct, is off-putting, but it’s off-putting because of his behaviour, not hers. Watching the star defer to his director-girlfriend rather than to the people he is interviewing – going so far as to cut one off in the middle of a deeply personal story – is so at odds with the rest of Bourdain’s filmed interactions with people that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s him. Not one of Bourdain’s collaborators holds Argento responsible for this behaviour, or at least they don’t say so explicitly here. Nor do they place responsibility for his suicide on anyone other than him. Whether this excuses Neville for declining to approach Argento, though, is questionable.

It seems obvious now, with the benefit of hindsight, that Bourdain’s lifestyle had been taking its toll on him for at least as long as he’d been living it. In a 2016 episode of Parts Unknown, extracts of which appear in Roadrunner, he told an Argentinian psychotherapist that a poorly made airport hamburger could send him into “a spiral of depression that can last for days”. (In the film, he tells the same therapist that he only ever experiences happiness for a few seconds at a time, and that he thinks it might be too late for him to change.) In an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air the same year, he said the nadir of all possible culinary experiences was an airport Johnny Rockets. To these examples the film adds several more: Bourdain saying that bad airport fries make him want to kill himself, describing a shoot as a “four-day fuckover”. It is worth remembering that he was on the road 250 days a year, the ultimate fly-in-fly-out worker. “We forget,” I wrote in the immediate aftermath of his death, “because of the colour and movement of the shows, that he lived an existence not entirely dissimilar to that of George Clooney’s character in Up in the Air.”

It could be asked why he didn’t take a sabbatical, why he didn’t down tools for a year and regroup. According to the film, he had wanted to do so. He had told his producers that he intended to quit. But when they said they would support him in this decision, he froze and decided against it. Roadrunner posits a theory as to why.

From the beginning of Bourdain’s life as a public figure, with the publication of Kitchen Confidential at the turn of the century, addiction was central to the story he told about himself. Recovery, though, was not. He kicked heroin with methadone and quit methadone cold turkey. But he apparently didn’t do anything to address the issues that led him to drugs in the first place. As a result, as one interviewee puts it in the film, he was constantly trading one addiction for another. The routine of the junkie became the routine of the line cook became the routine of the budding writer. (In one snatch of video from the late 1990s – a trove of which was made available to Neville and which renders the film more than a mere supercut of the shows – Bourdain describes the discipline with which he rolls out of bed, smokes a cigarette and gets to work at the keyboard.) His insane shooting schedule replaced this routine in turn. Meanwhile, junk gave way to Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which gave way, in the film’s telling, to Asia Argento. Bourdain appears to have been both perpetually unsatisfied and, despite his innate curiosity and generosity, perpetually callous as a result. (In Medium Raw, the audiobook of which is used as voice-over here, he describes “cruelly [burning] down my previous life in its entirety” when success came knocking. That life included, among other things, a wife of 20 years, Nancy Putkoski, who is not interviewed in the film.)

He lived, then, in what Alan Moorehead once described as “the half-world of only partial commitment”. “This is not the stuff out of which you can make either traitors or heroes,” Moorehead wrote in A Late Education, his posthumous autobiography. “It simply leaves you with sensations of frustration and of shallow guilt, which to avoid, you keep moving on.” It is difficult not to note that Argento was the only addiction that Bourdain did not get to kick at the time of his choosing.

If Argento’s relative absence from the film allows Bourdain’s collaborators, friends and second ex-wife, Ottavia Busia, to shape her place in the narrative, the way they attempt to shape that narrative more broadly has gone comparatively overlooked.

It is not that they have settled for hagiography or anything quite so crude as that. There are a few obligatory attempts to bring Bourdain down a peg or two, to render him on a slightly less saintly, slightly more human scale. He could be difficult to work with. He was not always a good friend. Despite seeming to have time for everyone, he didn’t. (There is one scene in which, if looks could kill, there would be at least one very dead French mime.)

But these seem like revisions that he might have insisted upon himself, especially in the wake of his unexpected elevation, in the last years of his life, to the role of public intellectual. Those aspects of his life he rarely spoke about publicly – his parents’ divorce, the end of his first marriage, basically anything prior to the publication of Kitchen Confidential that was not already contained between its covers – remain off-limits. These were, and are, the real parts unknown, and the result is that the film has the highly selective, and therefore suspicious, air of an authorised biography about it. When Busia says that her involvement in the film will be the last time she speaks publicly about her ex-husband, one is reminded of Philip Roth’s literary estate and its decision (much regretted now, one suspects) to grant Blake Bailey exclusive access to Roth’s papers and unpublished novels. In the same way, with this year’s release of World Travel: An Irreverent Guide, which mines the television series and Bourdain’s previous travel writing, the posthumous Bourdain cottage industry might already be said to resemble that of Roberto Bolaño, whose every last fragment of even half-baked prose has been rushed into print by his own executors. In a scathing review of Roadrunner for Eater, Maria Bustillos described all this as the “Bourdain-industrial complex”. She included the documentary among its products.

At some point in the 18 years between the publication of Kitchen Confidential and his death, Bourdain appears to have realised that he was the product. For someone raised on punk and junk, this can’t have been a pleasant realisation. (One suspects he realised it early. “I hate myself,” he says in an old video recording, as he discusses an upcoming media appearance.) He became increasingly aware of the damage he could do to a hole-in-the-wall bar by featuring it on his shows, and of the even greater damage he could do to a community by rocking up and paying some family, at the exclusion of their neighbours, to feature, too. He tried in vain to push back against this, in part by talking about it openly, and in part by exerting ever more creative control over his work. But in a way that was ultimately beyond his control, these self-recriminations and revelations came to be part of his image, too, and added to the air of authenticity that made him such a valuable commodity. His best work – his episodes about Beirut and Haiti – drew back the curtain on how the boudin noir was made, and commented directly on the sometimes pernicious impact of his work upon the places he visited. Later episodes, such as the one featuring the Argentinian therapist, laid bare the sometimes pernicious impact that it was having on Bourdain himself.

But in the years since all these episodes aired, and again now in Roadrunner, even these ethical doubts about his work have been subsumed into what is beginning to feel like a pre-approved narrative, and therefore into the system of which the episodes in question were intended as a critique. It is unsurprising that Bourdain once told his producers that that his ideal version of a Bourdain travel show was one in which Bourdain did not appear. (He thought it could be shot from his point of view.) Long critical of the aspirational and exclusionary nature of much food and travel television, Bourdain bucked the trend with relish, only to find that bucking the trend could be made aspirational, could be monetised, too.

Perhaps this is why Neville seems unrepentant about either of the directorial decisions for which he has received the most criticism. The difference between what Bourdain did for a crust – write and record voice-overs to accompany well-crafted images that suggested he was experiencing a place more directly than the realities of a television shoot allowed – and what Neville did – use a version of that voice to illustrate those same images – is ultimately one of degree rather than kind. Not approaching Argento on the grounds that it would have been “painful for a lot of people”, and represented a kind of “narrative quicksand”, can only lead one to ask: which people? and whose narrative?

It is Neville’s commitment to the narrative we already know, the narrative that sold, that leads him to stage the ending of the film. This lapse in directorial judgement, though less discussed than his other two sins, is also perhaps the most telling. As Bourdain walks down a beach in Massachusetts – a shot taken from a Parts Unknown episode that delves deep into Bourdain’s history with heroin – the artist David Choe reflects in a voice-over on its suitability as an ending. “He would fucking hate that,” he says. The image cuts to Choe in his studio, where he is told that there are Bourdain murals in the area. He rolls his eyes. “We live in this society where every great artist who kills themselves is on murals and they’re talked about like gods,” he complains. He adds that he would like to deface one.

We cut, as though now obligated, to the street. As Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age rocks out on the soundtrack, Choe proceeds to make good on his threat, vandalising a mural as the credits begin to roll. But it turns out that Neville commissioned the mural for precisely this purpose. (This, it goes without saying, is not made explicit in the moment.) The result of this supposed defacement is messy, haphazard and crude, just as Bourdain would have liked it. But the circumstances of its creation drain it of any rebellious quality – punk aesthetics without any of the ethos – and turn it instead into a kind of official portrait: an image of Bourdain that the keepers of his image are happy for you to see.

Matthew Clayfield

Matthew Clayfield is a freelance foreign correspondent and travel writer.

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