“You’re probably going to find out anyway but here’s a little pre-emptive truth-telling – there’s no happy ending.” (Anthony Bourdain)
We watched Roadrunner over the weekend. It documents the life of Anthony Bourdain, a man I belatedly became quasi-obsessed with, not many years prior to his suicide, in June 2018.
It was the colourful biography, Kitchen Confidential, which spring-boarded him to fame, about 20 years ago, and almost certainly and aggressively pulled him away from being a chef in New York, to traveling 250 days a year around the world, making TV shows about food and culture.
Vietnam was one of the first countries to “wow” Bourdain, and go on to have a continuous and powerful impact on him, during his future visits here – including eating bun cha with Barack Obama up in Hanoi in 2016.
Other countries followed, each stirring up a cocktail of emotions, as Bourdain hopped from slurping street-vendor soup to smoking pipes with desert nomads, sampling exotic and, at times, gruesome cuisine along the way, determined as he was to inspire others to do the same.
As his film-making evolved, his line of enquiry became more intense and more considered.
Bourdain seems to connect well with everyone he meets (although, as commentators in Roadrunner will attest, directing him on camera can clearly be a nightmare).
As a viewer, I admired how he interacted with people on his travels, and noted at the time how his own careful, yet celebrity-kissed effervescence was often blunted by the authenticity, and the grace of the people with whom he momentarily spent time, or shared a meal.
As I was in awe of him, it was he who was in awe of the person sat in front of him at that moment on a plastic chair, talking about their livelihood, or about their hopes and dreams.
These emotions he experienced, from his constant exposure to different contexts and perspectives, and the lasting impressions they left on him, were then churned up and recycled, a million times over, amongst viewers, like myself, of his various shows: A Cook’s Tour; No Reservations; The Layover; and, finally, Parts Unknown.
For the most part, I imagine, these offerings served to inspire people on different levels. One tenet that runs through each series was the concept of being ‘on the move’:-
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
What Roadrunner illuminates, through its intimate outpourings from Bourdain’s family and friends, was that his years of travel were “never about the food.”
To spin a metaphor about how he might, instead, have been using fame, and trips overseas, as some kind of personal odyssey, so as to make sense of his own anger and frustration with the world, as well as with himself, could easily be construed as simplistic, and trite. However, it’s easy to see how this could have been the case: he was a man who never settled, was “always rushing onto set, or rushing off it…fleeing home, or fleeing from home” to quote from the film a sentiment that echoes throughout it.
During these chaotic, yet lucid, sojourns from continent to continent – drinking pulsating cobra heart juice in Thailand, being evacuated from Lebanon during a war, or just blustering through tequila shots with rock stars in Joshua Tree – there are some moments of ‘stillness’ for Bourdain, that Roadrunner captures. Moments where he does seem to find a karma, of sorts: becoming a father; being in a new relationship; breaking into deep smiles with friends, at very precise moments of camaraderie.
You feel, watching, that this stillness could provide a commendable corollary to the rage, anger and boisterous indifference that peppers most of the narrative associated with Bourdain. His can be a sensitivity, a genuineness and a purity unbridled to most who choose to place themselves in front of a camera lens.
Ostensibly, Roadrunner catalogues the litany of one man’s lifetime of reflections, circling around an over-arching curiosity that Bourdain pursued right until the very end. A curiosity which sought to answer some of life’s most existential questions.
And, for me, it’s this combination of anger and of calmness, with which Bourdain jostles, that make for such an engaging canvas on which to then let his curiosity run free.
In this sense, watching Roadrunner, like watching an episode of Parts Unknown, is made to feel a hugely relatable, and grounding, experience. Temporarily accompanying Bourdain on his quest (and, in the case of Roadrunner, condensing into a couple of hours Bourdain’s 61 year commitment to seeking out answers) is nothing short of an honour.
In his two decades of film-making, he made it clear that “aspiring to mediocrity” was never an option for him, and in that regard I feel he maintained the highest of standards.
That the last third of his life was spent “on the move”, very publicaly asking these questions – skittishly and consistently unsatisfied with the answers he was uncovering – is both upsetting to observe, as well as acutely uplifting, and insightful, all rolled into one.
Anthony Bourdain challenged norms and behaviours – relentlessly, and as widely as is possible in a lifetime – in search, perhaps, of the impossible.
That every contributor to the film, on camera, finds themselves lost for words, in their attempts to sum up, respectively, what Bourdain’s legacy might be, and indeed why he chose to end his life, is in itself a testament to the enormity of what he’d been committed to achieving.
Visibly moved to choking tears, one of Bourdain’s close friends (still angry at the reality that he’ll never again have his companion sit with him) challenges the film-makers to select a cheesy, closing scene of Bourdain for the final seconds of the film – “ideally, him walking down the beach on his own…he’d hate that” scoffs the friend, grinning.
The same guy then shaves his head (uncut since Bourdain’s death) and heads off to graffiti one of the nearby murals of Bourdain, in his neighbourhood – a last ditch attempt to connect with, to laugh with, and to indulge with his friend.
It’s a fitting and special tribute, because it’s so profoundly different, conventionally, to how people normally would behave in that situation.
In many ways, it’s the perfect tribute to a man who held a similar principle close, in all that he set out to accomplish, even though you got the impression he never quite knew what that actually was.