During the week that “Space Jam: A New Legacy” opened, it was hard to think of “Roadrunner” without thinking of the beep-beep and the pursuit by one Wile E. Coyote. “Roadrunner” is a documentary that feels the need to explain its title, making it “Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain.” That’s not promising, but there are interesting moments as we head toward the inevitable. Unless you’ve been hiding in non-foodie no news land, you’ll know what the once celebrated chef and food world explorer committed suicide in Paris.
Don’t worry. There are no crime scenes here, but plenty of clips provide a context of a man who spoke more than once on camera about his death and even suicide. Bourdain’s suicide (8 June 2018) left some loose ends, most notably his daughter, Ariane (b. 2007). What director catches on camera is not only the Bourdain people knew or the man as he was behind the scenes, but the need for people to talk about the impact of Bourdain’s death.
Looking at beloved celebrities isn’t new territory for director Morgan Neville. His 2018 documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” examined the life of the late Fred Rogers (1928-2003). The film won Best Documentary Feature at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards and the Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures at the 2019 Producers Guild of America Awards.
Bourdain was nothing like Rogers, who was deeply religious and gentle. Bourdain was the bad boy of restaurants. He dropped out of college, took a job as a dishwasher, graduated to cook and eventually became a chef. His 2000 “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” revealed an abusive culture but also Bourdain’s talent for telling a tantalizing tale. And yet, we also learned that Bourdain was a drug addict.
I briefly worked in the restaurant industry as a hostess, a cashier and a waitress. There were questionable situations, including the use of illegal aliens who were less likely to complain about long work hours and no set breaks. Luckily I saw no drugs use, but these were not high-end restaurants in the bustling New York as in “Kitchen Confidential.”
The 2000 book, which I’ve read, made Bourdain a celebrity and was an expansion of his 1999 New Yorker article, “Don’t Eat Before Reading This.” In 2001, he wrote about his food travels in “A Cook’s Tour” which was written in conjunction with his Food Network food and travel show by the same name (airing in 2002-2003). His next television series was “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” for the Travel Channel. During the filming of an episode, they cast and crew were caught in the Israel-Lebanon conflict of July 2006. The resulting episode which included their escape and evacuation by the US Marines was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2007.
In 2011, Bourdain was on the Travel Channel again with “The Layover” (2011-2013) in which a city is explored in an air travel layover of 24 to 48 hours. In 2013, Bourdain was on CNN for his “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” Bourdain was in Paris for this program when committed suicide.
Reading Bourdain’s book and watching his programs, I cringe. He is not Mr. Rogers. He curses and makes sexual references. In his earlier programs, some of the foods seems to be eaten for shock value such as the still beating heart of a cobra, a clip included in the documentary. Why do audiences love bad boys so much? Aren’t we rewarding and encouraging bad behavior by giving it attention? That may be the dog trainer inside of me talking, but it is worth considering.
What we learn about Bourdain is that in the beginning, he was awkward, shy and not well traveled. Husband and wife executive producer team of “A Cook’s Tour,” Christopher Collins and Lydia Tenaglia recall how Bourdain began to form a persona and director Neville draws out how Bourdain’s growing fame made it hard on his marriages and his privacy. Director of digital content and social media content Helen M. Cho, his ex-wife and executor of Bourdain’s estate Ottavia Bourdain, celebrity chefs David Chang and Eric Ripert are among the talking heads who add their memories and speculation to the documentary. Ripert found Bourdain’s dead body in the luxury hotel where he was staying. The person who is absent from this documentary is the woman who Bourdain was seeing at the time of his death, Asia Argento. The tabloid report and the visit to the museum in the aftermath of Argento’s declaration that Harvey Weinstein used Cannes as his “hunting ground” bring up questions about Argento that go unanswered.
If you haven’t known someone who committed suicide, then this documentary might seem like an unnecessary intrusion into a public personality’s private demons. But Bourdain put those things out there and his associates have to wonder if they should have been listening or perhaps what they missed. And there is a tendency for one to look to blame someone or something.
When I was in my first grad school program, my best friend at UCLA committed suicide. I found out in a phone call and was the person who told all of her mutual friends, met with her coworkers (who had contacted me with the news) and met her parents as they sorted through her things. I cut off my long hair and never, never, never again went to our Saturday hangout. I moved out of that apartment, within cycling distance of hers to another part of town. I listened to many people talk about her and their sadness engulfed me.
I wish she could have waited a day or a month or a year for things to get better because she was missed. She is missed. She was an OSU Gymnastics Scholar-Athlete in 1977, 78, 79 and 80. She was a Buckeye Letter winner (1978, 1979, 1980). She was a friend who organized our gatherings and she could have been an artist.
My friend had escalating anger toward the end of her life. I am sometimes driven by anger, but this kind of imposing anger was something I didn’t recognize at the time as a warning. The documentary “Roadrunner” shows Bourdain on the beach remembering being angry as a young man, but being unable to remember why he was angry. He also had an addictive personality, demonstrated by his smoking. Some of the emotional content muted by the movie mania. Bourdain was a cinephile, and I understand Neville attempted to portray this by constantly interspersing scenes from movies in “Roadrunner.” Some of the scenes and movies I recognized and others I did not. Because the movies aren’t identified, one’s mind might wander off toward the other movie or attempting to identify the movie instead of focusing on the angst and attitude of Bourdain. Instead of intensifying or enhancing, the movie excerpts are just a distraction.
Ethos, according to Merriam-Webster, was originally used by Aristotle to refer to the balance between passion and caution in a person’s character or personality. Neville’s documentary portrays Bourdain as a man who threw himself wholeheartedly into things and abandoned caution in pursuit of the next big thing, particularly to make good television. Ethos is also about using character, credibility and ethics to persuade people. Bourdain in his later series looked at people and listened. He embraced strange foods that had shock value, but made other choices seem less extreme. As a former chef, who was now mostly out of the kitchen, he had credibility but what was behind his need to be bad?
Then there’s the ethical problem: The usage of AI to produce a voice that sounds like Bourdain to read quotes that he never read. Is Neville’s choice the beginning of the slide down the slippery slope? It’s hard to say. With so much of Bourdain already on film, with his life so well documented, it’s surprising that Neville would need to do this. Those who follow my Facebook page, will know why I find Chang’s final actions disturbing and profoundly disappointing.
In the end, Bourdain made his choices and so did Neville. While some might see “Roadrunner” as a tawdry, petty tell-all, Neville has provided us with an incomplete but compelling discussion about suicide through a man who was popular because he portrayed what viewers thought was himself. If by talking about suicide and seeing the sadness, the raw emotional searching for answers by the friends, lovers and colleagues left behind can prevent someone from taking the final step, then this documentary is worth viewing.
Resources: You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).