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The Wondrous Life of Anthony Bourdain, Clouded in Documenting His Death

‘Roadrunner’ director Morgan Neville wants to understand Bourdain’s death; the audience wants to understand Bourdain. He was an author and host but more importantly a guide. A travel guide, yes, but more so a master or tutor.

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A few years ago, Anthony Bourdain took up Brazilian jiujitsu, inspired by his wife at the time, Ottavia Busia. In Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, released in theaters on Friday, Bourdain stands sweating on a podium in his gi, competing in his late 50s. Fans of his CNN series Parts Unknown might recall him grappling with an opponent in a San Francisco gym during the Bay Area episode. But the footage in Roadrunner looks a lot more like home video, capturing Bourdain at the bleeding edge of his international fame and containing a hint of the second life we wish he might have been able to enjoy beyond our prying adoration.

The documentarian Morgan Neville directed Roadrunner, conducting interviews with the adventurer’s business partners, TV crew, and famous friends Eric Ripert, John Lurie, David Chang, Iggy Pop, and ex-wife Busia. There’s a common bitterness in their reminiscing about Bourdain. They’re grieving to this day and still struggling to process his demise. Three years ago, Ripert found Bourdain dead in his hotel room in France. He’d been taping an episode for Parts Unknown, the successor to his Travel Channel hit series, No Reservations. In his breakout memoir, Kitchen Confidential, based on his earliest professional misadventures in New York, Bourdain chronicled the secret vices and indignities of restaurant work. Once a dishwasher addicted to heroin, Bourdain became a globe-trotting iconoclast. He dodged a missile strike in Beirut. He scouted land mines in Laos. He profiled activists in Hong Kong and Tehran. He nursed a brave appetite and a nasty hangover wherever he traveled. He burst from one international intrigue to the next. He sought conversation as often as cuisine, even as his age and inebriation wore him down. And he ate.

I recall Bourdain’s death, on June 8, 2018, ruining everyone’s day with shockingly universal reach. He was a cable television personality with a downright presidential regard. Mourners crowded around Les Halles, the Lower Manhattan brasserie and site of so much drama in Kitchen Confidential, and laid flowers. Barack Obama, who once dined with Bourdain in Hanoi for an interview on Parts Unknown, tweeted his condolences, recalling Bourdain’s “ability to bring us together [and] make us a little less afraid of the unknown.” The filmmaker and actress Asia Argento, who dated Bourdain for a couple of years after his separation from Busia, faced a hostile brigade in her Instagram comments. Did Argento cheat on Bourdain and then break up with him, thus driving Bourdain to suicide? That’s what they wanted to know. Neville and his subjects want to know, too. It’s an ugly question—but grief will have you asking some ugly questions about yourself and others. “I understand that the world needs to find a reason,” Argento told The Daily Mail. “I would like to find a reason, too.”

The first half of Roadrunner reanimates Bourdain’s life and style. Like 2Pac, Bourdain at times seems to be commenting on his own demise in retrospect. Neville says he even fed 12 hours of Bourdain’s voice to an artificial intelligence model to generate three written quotes Bourdain never actually said out loud. The second half of the documentary desperately seeks the reason for his death. The subjects obsess over Argento, as they heap innuendo onto footage in which she barely speaks. Neville told The Wall Street Journal he never even bothered to solicit an interview with the actress. “I didn’t want to get one inch deeper into that story,” Neville said, “because it was quicksand.” Even then, Argento dominates the last third of Roadrunner. The drama surrounding her relationship with Bourdain grants some insight into Bourdain’s temperament—“much more manic and much more depressive” in his final years, Neville summarizes—but also obstructs the account of his better days.

Watching the film, I considered the difference between No Reservations and Parts Unknown. The former series, which aired for nine seasons, found Bourdain in his early 50s, a restless ex-smoker fighting through jet lag, hangovers, and peppercorn heat. He crashed through destinations with a combination of irreverence and humility that couldn’t be found on any other culinary programming—or really anything else—on television at the time. He was the Great American Tourist, redeeming the rest of us with our broken French and fanny packs and savvy disavowals of George W. Bush. Parts Unknown followed Bourdain closer to 60, restless as ever but now a bit creaky, far more distinguished and cautious in his role as a sort of culinary ambassador for the whole wide world. It was increasingly unlikely to see him and his crew sprinting toward a naval escort in active war zone, the Libya episode notwithstanding. CNN produced Parts Unknown and occasionally tapped Bourdain as a talking head in other programming on the network. He never quite became a pundit, thank God, but CNN did seem to domesticate Bourdain and very nearly turn him into a proper cable news correspondent.

Roadrunner discusses Kitchen Confidential in detail but then becomes imprecise in accounting for Bourdain’s television career. It can feel a bit like watching a band documentary where no particular album is mentioned or discussed. The seasons pass as screensavers, a mere backdrop to so much desperate psychoanalysis. Neville wants to understand Bourdain’s death; I want to understand Bourdain. He was an author and host but more importantly a guide. A travel guide, yes—I’ve visited a few cities and patronized several establishments on his recommendation—but more so a master or tutor. He taught you how to communicate with strangers who don’t speak your language. He taught you how to consume unfamiliar food without irony or trepidation. He taught you how to behave in a strange land. Even if you watched these shows with no means or desire to book such adventures for yourself, Bourdain taught you to view the world as a vast and wonderful menu to be savored, in good company, wherever you are.

I struggled to understand the one contentious exception to Neville’s otherwise vague survey of Bourdain’s TV experience: Asia Argento supposedly ruining a Parts Unknown taping in Hong Kong. The series’ director, Michael Steed, gets sick, and at Bourdain’s behest, Argento substitutes. She appeared in a few episodes throughout the series but directed only this one. The crew recalls her as a fussy and incompetent filmmaker; the behind-the-scenes footage shows her interrupting some impassioned testimony from a democratic activist in order to make a minor adjustment to the table where they’re seated for lunch. It’s an awkward encounter but in fact tracks with the overall differences, larger than Argento, between No Reservations and Parts Unknown. The later series often seemed overproduced and overdetermined to extract its geopolitical insights—far less reckless than No Reservations, a bit too true to CNN.

Don’t get me wrong, Bourdain and his crew made great episodes of Parts Unknown: dining with dissidents in Tehran and Isfahan, getting drunk on baijiu and schooled in Sichuan cuisine with Ripert, riding in candy paint with the truck rattling in Houston with Slim Thug. But No Reservations was his masterwork. No Reservations was Bourdain’s great action-adventure.

Revisit his works, rather than revel in the uncertainties about his demise, and you resurface the dark ironies that made his death such a brutal and gratuitous insult on a cosmic level. It’s not just who he was and how he’d suffered from addiction and depression since the 1980s. It’s the moment in which we lost him. Here we had this noble, globe-trotting foodie determined to bust the culinary imagination wide open, and then he died during this populist craze against multiculturalism and globalization. With Bourdain died a certain joy and romanticism about freedom of movement.

Bourdain was opinionated and disagreeable to so many admirers. He championed #MeToo alongside Argento, and Busia recalls him liquidating some friendships over disputes about the movement. He’d always been a “cynical, born and bred, citified lefty,” ranting, for example, against imperialism on location in Central America. Still he remained, in essence, a working-class chef with a foul mouth, common sense, and relatability persisting despite his stature and stridency. He was a “media elite” in a very bygone sense: plainspoken, adventurous, curious, rigorous, trustworthy. Roadrunner complicates the popular portrait, presenting a beleaguered hero who turned impulsive, defensive, and inscrutable in his final days. He was nigh unrecognizable among his last documented mannerisms, and then he was gone. It’s a heart-wrenching turn, and Neville masters the emotional stakes for his subjects. He tames the grief. But watching Roadrunner, I rarely felt like Neville “got” Bourdain as so many strangers knew him: by his work.

I don’t mean to suggest that Neville should’ve made a more flattering documentary. But Bourdain hosted 21 seasons of television—250 episodes—across two networks, each season a distinct vintage; a bit more thoughtfulness about his life’s work would’ve been appreciated. Instead, Roadrunner obsesses over his death to the point of vengeful speculation, to the exclusion of everything else. It’s true to grief, I suppose, but distressingly insular for a documentary about such a magnanimous adventurer who departed this world with no shortage of strangers to meet, meals to share, hangovers to remedy, and stories to tell. That’s the void he’s left behind for so many strangers. Not the mysteries in his death but rather his inconclusive guidance. We’ve always known how to eat. But Bourdain was teaching us how to break bread across great distances and dissimilarities. In his absence we’ve forgotten so much.