ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN [Tribeca Film Festival Review]
“I’d been the culinary equivalent of the Flying Dutchman too long, living a half-life with no future in mind, just oozing from sensation to sensation.” — Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
Tony Bourdain lived more than one life and in those lives there are a lot of stories to tell. Morgan Neville, Academy Award and Grammy Award winning director of 16 feature documentaries like 20 Feet From Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Search and Destroy: Iggy & The Stooges’ Raw Power, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead, Keith Richards: Under the Influence is the director to do Bourdain’s story justice. Most people point to Neville’s film Won’t You Be My Neighbor as the film that establishes his credibility to make ROADRUNNER, but I think it is equally important to note that Neville has made many films about musicians and one about the director Orson Welles. While Bourdain wasn’t a musician technically, music was a part of his being. If you want to know where Neville’s qualification lies, you can see it in his face (and his impressive body of work) Neville is tough and empathetic. He doesn’t just accept the surface. If you have the eyes that can see and you know where to look, you know this about Neville. He is a person that the friends and family of an intensely private, but equally public man would trust to talk to about the man that they love. Neville wants to tell the real story and try to understand who this elusive person really was. Can we ever really know who someone else is, with all the illusions that we create for ourselves and the image that we create for public consumption? Maybe not. Can we understand what drives The Flying Dutchman? Who knows, but we can try. Here is the trailer:
ROADRUNNER starts with narration that you see in the trailer which is disturbingly prophetic. Bourdain admits what he probably always suspected, that there’s no happy ending and indulges in his aggressive propensity to tell the truth, in part so his secrets could not be held against him. One of the things that the best biographical documentaries do is use the medium of film to represent the person and their life through their storytelling. ROADRUNNER does this incredibly well. The way the voiceover, which is a hallmark of Bourdain’s television shows, is deployed is eerily like the show. It makes you feel, as you are programmed to if you are a fan of A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations, The Layover, or Parts Unknown, that Bourdain is there with you. He is in your head. His most celebrated show, Parts Unknown, had many lures, but his rich, emotional, irony-drenched, painfully honest, and highly intelligent baritone voiceover was the hook that most people never noticed until it was too late. It was only in the final season, when they had episodes without his voiceover that people realized how imperative he made those vocal notes — almost like you could hear his thoughts, because that’s what they were. Neville clearly understands the importance of his voice to telling the story. In Neville’s words, Bourdain is a cinéaste who not only loved films, but understood them the way that a filmmaker does, because that is also what Bourdain was. Throughout his entire life, as seen in this documentary, it’s that he wanted life to be as exciting as a movie. He lived his life like a movie and maybe wished that he was in a movie. He wanted to possess the larger than life thrill of books and cinema constantly. I can relate.
As a cook, tastes and smells are my memories. Now, I’m in search of new ones. So I’m leaving New York City and hoping to have a few epiphanies around the world. And I’m willing to go to some lengths to do that. I am looking for extremes of emotion and experience. I’ll try anything, I’ll risk everything. I have nothing to lose. Anthony Bourdain — Opening narration of A Cook’s Tour
The archival video and photos hit all the right places in your brain, the familiar photos and some that seem like they were the outtakes of his most well known images. The documentary goes back to his beginnings as an extremely precocious child, who taught himself how to read with a book that his mother Gladys bought because she was afraid he would reject reading and learning because of his pugnacious nature. The film places Bourdain the person and his history emotionally in context of his public life and persona as well as behind the scenes in his personal life.
“…context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life…” — Anthony Bourdain, A Cook’s Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines
It also subtly shows that his bro-ish Kitchen Confidential persona of the Bad Boy Chef, which burned off of him — but not totally in the eyes of the general public, was not really who he was. Because of his rebellious streak and his tendency to deliberately shock people that was with him from his earliest days, remember that it even convinced his mother, that’s what people believed. Bourdain’s biggest magic feat was convincing his mother, the restaurant world, and the planet Earth that he was a thug, when the truth was also that he was also exceptionally well mannered and thoughtful gentleman too. Perhaps it wasn’t despite that, but that as a multifaceted human being, he was both and more besides. After all, he came up from the rough depths of the restaurant industry where the foulest insults were considered blood friendship. It worked because, as all the greatest actors know, Bourdain himself believed it and, to a certain extent, it was true. This is the depth of ROADRUNNER, that it opens doors to the person that Anthony Bourdain is and brings more questions to your mind than handing you easy answers. Most of our desire is to know for certain what something is. It is to categorize it, and as Stephen King succinctly put it, to pin the butterfly to the board. Like King, I think that this tendency is an all too human mistake. As seen in the masterful film POSSESSOR, all of us are acting — every day. We all construct personas for ourselves, especially in these days of social media. The question is: do we actually know who we are and what drives us? Therefore, how can we judge someone like Bourdain for his choices when we might not even be as open and self aware as he is? While we can’t know exactly how much he admitted to himself, at least he was open to the possibility that he was wrong.
“It’s from the Greek skeptics,” he says. “The translation is ‘I am certain of nothing. I’m not even sure I’m certain of that.’ If I believe in anything, it is doubt. The root cause of all life’s problems is looking for a simple fucking answer.” — Anthony Bourdain, Vogue Magazine — October 21, 2016
The film is shot wonderfully and has the advantage of all the delicious Zero Point Zero footage from Bourdain’s shows. Parts Unknown’s shows and footage are stellar and Bourdain had the advantage of a fiercely dedicated crew with incredible DPs like Zach Zamboni, Todd Liebler, and Morgan Fallon, as well as incredible directors and producers like Fallon, Helen Cho, Christopher Collins, Lydia Tenaglia, Michael Steed, and Tom Vitale. I could go on about what an exceptional show Parts Unknown was, but that’s a whole ‘nother column.
Far from being a love letter, this documentary presents Tony Bourdain as a whole and flawed human being. A number of his close friends and family open up to Neville’s camera and sometimes they say unflattering things. He’s not St. Anthony, he’s a guy who in his honesty, and perhaps his own guilt, says some things to people that are hurtful and that tell more about what was on his mind than they do about the people in his life. Perhaps more than he ever might have been able to tell them to their face. It’s about his effort to be everything to multiple people: to his family, to his daughter, to his girlfriend, to the victims of injustice, but never to his audience. It’s about his successes, his dissatisfaction, and his folly. How his open view towards life, his unwillingness to judge people, and how someone who he trusted betrayed him.
“Assume the worst. About everybody. But don’t let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious and corrupt a**hole shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them or finding them entertaining.”-Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In The Culinary Underbelly
There’s been some critical pushback towards Morgan Neville about how the documentary handles the topic of Asia Argento and what I find to be strange is that people are defending her. That’s what I personally find to be queasy. You might have forgotten, but Asia Argento has a warrant out for her arrest for statutory rape. She’s lied repeatedly and portrayed the victim of that rape, Jimmy Bennett, as the aggressor. She has accused Tony Bourdain of insisting that she pay Bennett a settlement and for supplying the money for it. Suddenly, if you believe Argento, Bourdain was a man who feared for his reputation for a crime that he was not involved in. She’s trying to say the inveterate truth teller who searingly exposed many of his own guilty secrets to the public eye was more concerned about his “image” than the truth. If you believe Asia Argento, she meekly submitted to Bourdain’s command on this issue. Sure. This is a rumor that has been denied by Bourdain’s lawyer, FYI, but one that Argento has repeated again and again.
I have to ask, how is not interviewing a person who doesn’t tell the truth one sided? How unfair is interviewing the people who knew Bourdain best: his close friends, co-workers, family, and his wife, those who actually knew him for decades and some of whom were with him in Kayersberg after Argento’s paparazzi photo scandal broke? When did telling the truth about what they witnessed become gross? Despite the standard foisted upon us by the Murdochs, the concept of “fair and balanced” is a fallacy. You aren’t required to give liars their chance to lie again. However, Asia Argento has had three years of unfettered freedom to say whatever she wants about Anthony Bourdain on the world stage abetted by a press who have spent those years as stenographers creating articles out of her latest maudlin Instagram post. I’d say that this secretarial service hardly represents journalistic integrity and fair play. She’s rarely been questioned on any of this. Asia Argento has had more than enough equal time and Morgan Neville is under no moral obligation to interview her. When hasn’t she had the opportunity to speak? Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Furthermore, she represents two years out of a 61 year life of a man who was on the road 250 days a year. Despite what Asia Argento would have you believe, Tony Bourdain is not defined by his relationship with her or her opinions. This is ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN, not ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ASIA ARGENTO.
I regret to inform you that this documentary and its handling of the Asia Argento issue does not villainize her. It merely presents the testimony of people who were there. The people who saw just how angry Bourdain was with her over her affair with Hugo Clement. Who saw his last Instagram Stories and have insight into their meaning. These are statements that have until now been left out of the record because every one was too busy listening to Argento. Was Neville supposed to continue editing the truth to save Asia Argento’s reputation? She who crowded his family and friends out of the public discourse, some might say intentionally. Why? Because, as with Ottavia Bourdain’s testimony, they could tell us that Bourdain’s relationship with Argento was anything but open. She tells us that Argento demanded that he ask for social media silence from his wife to feel “secure”. Argento made a demand that was born out of jealousy. It’s not an open relationship if the person who conveniently claims this is jealous of their boyfriend’s friendly relationship with his wife. There’s the disquieting take of Christopher Doyle, who says, out of the blue, “She thinks she going to take over your life.”. Christopher Doyle doesn’t have a vested interest in hurting Asia Argento. He was in this story for a very short time and is seen dancing with her in BTS footage from the Hong Kong episode. Their interactions on social media were exceedingly lovey dovey. If anything, after Argento’s grotesque manipulation, this is a correction of the record. If you feel uncomfortable with this, you might ask yourself why you are uncomfortable. Are you projecting your unwillingness to hold someone, who is a well known accuser of Weinstein, responsible for her actions? You can be a victim and a perpetrator too. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Tarana Burke, the creator of MeToo, said shortly after the revelation of Argento’s crime that we will be disappointed by people we believed in and that the fact of sexual violence, made of the exercise of power and privilege, does not change when it is committed by your favorite actresses or activists. I would also remind you that Neville himself has said that what is included in the documentary is a legally acceptable and non-actionable fragment of what information is actually out there about Argento in reference to Bourdain. They went easy on her because they didn’t want the notoriously litigious and vengeful Argento to be able to threaten legal, or any other, action.
What the film also handles very well is the impact of Bourdain’s life and his work through the grief stricken words and faces of his friends. Watching Josh Homme, who Bourdain excoriated publicly after Homme assaulted a videographer at a Queens of the Stone Age concert, admit that he hasn’t worked or created new music since Bourdain’s death. Watching Allison Mosshart quietly talk about Bourdain’s emails about Argento. This is the microcosm of a shared grief for the man. I personally know that the Latino community shares in that grief and so do Palestinians, Iranians, Muslims, victims of sexual assault and rape, immigrants, cooks and restaurant workers, and other groups that Bourdain stood up for when it wasn’t popular to speak out. If you wonder why so many people grieve for the man, this is part of the reason. He stuck his neck out for the people who didn’t have defenders. He spoke out against Henry Kissinger, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Donald Trump, and even the Clintons. Bourdain acknowledged the Armenian genocide before our own government did. He would not remain silent when an injustice wasn’t redressed. In this, he led the way and was very influential. While watching Instagram stories for a coffee expert while they were recording at a small Boyle Heights restaurant, the Milpa Grill, this weekend, I heard a restaurant worker say, “Yeah, I wanna see that movie with Anthony Bourdain. It’s coming out.” For a Latino cook behind the counter, this is an expression of an avid desire to see the film. Even people who never met him feel that pain in gratitude for his powerful empathy combined with his willingness to put his career on the line for those in need. Restaurant workers and line cooks feel seen by his books and tales of the line. This is made all the more powerful by the fact that he was a white man who never had to say anything, but felt compelled to anyway. Neville, who personally curated a 18 hour playlist of Bourdain’s favorite music for the film, doesn’t neglect the vital importance of music and film to Bourdain’s soul either. He intersperses meaningful songs and film clips throughout the film to illustrate who Bourdain was and how his obsessions with film and music also drove his lifelong search for meaning and solace in the creation of art.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN is an exquisitely crafted ode to a titan of imagination and free thought, made of shadows and light that reflects its subject, the venerable Tony Bourdain, and dares you to come to your own understanding of the man. A film that takes upon itself that task to express the essence of a multifaceted character that defies easy categorization. A wonder of cinema that puzzles out the heart of the man who wanted life to be as exciting as a film and to whom film, art, and music were lifeblood. A documentary about the self appointed warrior for social justice who used his art to try to become a better man. The story of a great romantic writer with a heart full of longing and poetry who would think nothing of telling you exactly where he would prefer to dispose of your corpse if asked. All the soft spots and all the gleaming knife edges of the man who could not rest.
It’s the story of the self effacing nerd who had no idea how much the world loved him and even if he had known, might not have been able to accept that love, however freely it was given.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN is a magnificent, heart rending, and vital film. ROADRUNNER is every bit as truthful and dangerous as its subject. It’s as difficult and challenging as Bourdain was himself and makes no apologies for its focus on the differing and sometimes unpleasant facets of a man who wanted no memorial and no myth.
ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN will be in select theatres starting on Friday, July 16. It comes with my highest recommendation. You don’t need to be a fan of Bourdain to be in thrall to this film. It is magnificent.