October 2022

Roadrunner | reviewed by Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazinel | October | www.scene4.com

The Greatest Job In the World

Miles David Moore

Over the last four years, whenever I have thought of Anthony Bourdain, I think of Richard Cory.  The writer-host of a series of television programs in which he traveled, ate, drank, and partied around the world, Bourdain was beloved and wealthy, a beguiling mix of geniality and acerbic wit, by all appearances a bon vivant who had a good time all the time.  So I and millions of other Bourdain fans were dumbstruck when, on June 8, 2018, he was found dead in his hotel room in Kaysersberg, Alsace, having hanged himself with the cord of his bathrobe.

Roadrunner, Morgan Neville's engrossing documentary on HBO Max, doesn't and couldn't explain why Bourdain, a man who apparently had so much to live for, chose to live no longer.  But it does offer clues that, in the end, add up to a portrait of Bourdain as a troubled, easily wounded man.  It also demonstrates that those close to Bourdain were just as shocked by his suicide as his fans, and, like his fans, remain inconsolable.

Bourdain admitted that he had a problematic personality almost from birth.  In an interview Neville includes in Roadrunner, Bourdain said he learned to read by sneaking his mother's copy of Why Johnny Can't Read, which she bought because she feared he wouldn't learn to read.  As a teenager he was the archetypal rebel without a cause, turning to booze and drugs, unable to forgive his parents, in his own words, for the sin of loving him.

Becoming a chef was Bourdain's salvation.  As he said in Kitchen Confidential, the 2000 book that made him a household name, and the TV shows that followed, the restaurant business gave his life structure and discipline.  He was executive chef at the elegant New York bistro Les Halles at the time Kitchen Confidential was published, and in a film made at that time, he demonstrated how orderly his kitchen was, the help and the supplies arriving exactly on time.  "It's why all chefs are drunks," he says in the film clip.  "We don't understand why the world doesn't work like our kitchens."

Filmmakers Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins approached Bourdain with the idea of a travel show.  The result was A Cook's Tour, which aired on the Food Network and was followed by two successors, No Reservations on the Travel Channel and Parts Unknown on CNN.  The odd fact, Tenaglia notes in Roadrunner, was that Bourdain had never traveled before this, aside from trips to visit his father's relatives in France.  "He was excited to go on the journey to see if the reality matched his imagination," she says.


As with his previous documentary subject—Fred Rogers in Won't You Be My Neighbor?—Neville had a cornucopia of video footage and interview subjects to choose from when making Roadrunner.  As the quote from Tenaglia suggests, the sudden switch from private citizen to TV personality was disorienting for Bourdain, and at first he was awkward and ill at ease.  "One minute I was standing next to a deep freezer, the next I was watching the sun set over the Sahara," he said. 

Bourdain learned quickly, however, and soon seemed as if he had spent his life in front of a camera.  The video clips breeze through Bourdain's most famous moments, including his consumption of a still-beating cobra heart.  Aided by his crew, Bourdain became a master at presenting the brash, adventurous part of his nature.  The narration he wrote himself—vivid, lively, pungent—helped enormously.  But the more introspective part of his nature suffered.  He was never less than gracious to fans who hailed him in the street, but he never grew accustomed to losing his anonymity. "People thought that he had the greatest job in the world," said his friend Doug Quint, "but it was one he could never really escape from."

"When my fifteen minutes of fame are over, I would be perfectly comfortable with that, even relieved," Bourdain said.  He also missed the structure a chef's schedule gave him; that routine, he said, was "the only thing that stood between me and chaos."

Beneath his tough exterior, Bourdain had a heart that was tender and compassionate almost to the breaking point.  Neville suggests that what Bourdain saw in places of misery, such as Congo and Haiti, played a substantial role in breaking him.  "When you spend time with people and empathize with their plight, how does that not change you fundamentally?" he said.


Finally, there were the upheavals in Bourdain's personal life.  His first wife Nancy, to whom he was married for more than 20 years, had no taste for the celebrity life she was suddenly thrust into.  Roadrunner leaves unclear what happened to his second marriage to Ottavia Busia, an assistant to his close friend Eric Ripert.  They were ecstatically happy for a time, and Bourdain was besotted with their daughter Ariane, his only child.  But eventually the actress and filmmaker Asia Argento entered his life.  I will not relate in detail what happened between Bourdain and Argento—that is for you to discover.  Bourdain himself predicted his relationship with Argento would end badly.  Those on the final shoot in Alsace noted that Bourdain was angry and agitated in a way they had never seen before.

Roadrunner contains many clips that show Bourdain musing about death or making grisly jokes about it.  The film opens with one of them.  It is a scene of the ocean, the waves lapping against the shore, with a voiceover by Bourdain: "It is considered useful and enlightening and therapeutic to think about death a few minutes every day."  I find his jokes about death too painful to quote, but thinking about death ultimately was neither useful nor enlightening nor therapeutic for him. 

All that is left now is the lingering mystery of his suicide and the grief of those who loved him.  ("A lot of people loved him," says Bourdain's friend Alison Mosshart in Roadrunner.  "I don't know if he believed it.")  He does not seem to have had anyone he looked to as an example of surmounting his darker thoughts.  I can't help but think of Jim Harrison, the great novelist, poet, essayist, outdoorsman, enophile, and gourmand, of whom Bourdain said, "I want to be him when I grow up."  Bourdain had Harrison as a guest on what for my money is the all-time-best episode of No Reservations, set in Livingston, Montana, where Harrison lived.  Bourdain and Harrison prepared a meal together, consisting of elk-and-antelope carbonnade and grilled wild doves; their companionability and mutual admiration leap off the screen.  The episode opens with Harrison reading his poem, "Larson's Holstein Bull," which begins, "Death waits inside us for a door to open," and ends, "Death steals everything except our stories."


Even more to the point is Harrison's 1973 collection, Letters to Yesenin, in which he confronted his own suicidal thoughts.  Sergei Yesenin, like Bourdain, was a man who seemed to have it all.  A poet lionized by the Soviet government, married to Isadora Duncan, he hanged himself at thirty, writing his last bitter poem to Duncan with the blood from his slashed wrists.  The final poem in Letters to Yesenin ends, "Today you make me want to tie myself to/a tree, stake my feet to earth itself so I can't get away.  It didn't/come as a burning bush or pillar of light but I've decided to stay."

Harrison wrote his last poem not in blood but in ink, dying pen in hand at seventy-eight.  Bourdain was just short of sixty-two when he hanged himself.  I wish he could have done what Harrison did, establish himself in a loved place—in his case it would probably have been Vietnam, possibly somewhere in the Caribbean—and write.  I wish he could have been Harrison, or at least someone with Harrison's equanimity, when he grew up.  Death waited for a door to open in Bourdain, and struck.  But it could not steal his stories.



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Miles David Moore | Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com
Miles David Moore is a Washington, D.C. reporter for Crain Communications, the author of three books of poetry and Scene4's Film Critic. For more of his reviews and articles, check the Archives.

©2022 Miles David Moore
©2022 Publication Scene4 Magazine


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