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“ROADRUNNER: A FILM ABOUT ANTHONY BOURDAIN” OR A CHEF ADRIFT

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IF ANTHONY BOURDAIN(1956-2018) HAD not existed Hollywood(and/or Madison Avenue) would have had to invent him. Perhaps some bright, bright mind with a prescient outlook about the future of American attitudes and consumerism would sit at his/her laptop and Frankenstein monster an Anthony Bourdain as a composite of certain intriguing yet contradictory elements, a figure designed to capture the attention of certain swaths of Americans in the 21st Century. 

Prior to the arrival of Bourdain what was the archetypal image of a chef across America culture? Either a fat, comic figure not unlike “Chef Boyardee,” a sloppy, non-threatening ethnic or a stiff, snobbish foreigner, presumably French, prone to ridicule because of his pomposity and pretentiousness  about such “high-falutin’” words as “cuisine,” “brasserie,” “bistro” and “fusion.”

The Food Channel existed before Bourdain’s excellent 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential made him an overnight star. Celebrated American TV cooks like Emeril Lagasse and Rachel Ray—original stars of The Food Network cable channel— existed and were embraced by unwashed America—to Bourdain’s great chagrin.

Bourdain’s emergence against this backdrop was truly punk rock—his favourite music genre, the soundtrack of his youth. Here was a tall, vaguely handsome East Coast guy of French ancestors, who chainsmoked, had been a heroin addict, who worked in a series of French restaurants(which connotes “quality” and “seriousness” even to the anti-French crowd of American life), who was straight, who was snarky yet very nerdy, who was funny yet insightful, politically incorrectly yet not truly offensive, married to his high school sweetheart, loudly liberal in politics yet conservative in his tastes(literal as well as figurative). Snobs who recoiled at the populist appeal of Lagasse, Ray and later Gus Fieri, had a savior in Bourdain; who smugly denounced figures he deemed as hoi polloi. Rock fans could see Bourdain as one of their own. There was a strong Lou Reed vibe to him. You could imagine that he had regularly wandered away from mosh pitting at CBGB to the kitchen of Les Halles.

Because Bourdain quickly followed up the surprise success of his book with agreeing to appear in a television show, which became the self-explanatory A Cook’s Tour [on the Food Network!], he was able to catapult unto another level of celebrity which likely would have been denied to him as a “mere” writer. Relatively few people read books. Nearly everyone consumes television programming at embarrassing rates.

Tour was eventually followed by a popular, long-running CNN show, Parts Unknown, which concentrated less on epicurean pleasures and more on Bourdain’s sentimental education via travel. Once he was known a chef, an aesthete and a nomadic traveler. Then he became congratulated as a “journalist,” stamped by his association with CNN.

I watched some episodes from the former and completely avoided the latter. Initially I had been a Bourdain fanboy, reading Kitchen Confidential once it became a New York Times bestseller. I still believe the book was a classic of the memoir form as something more than myopic and self-indulgent. And I also greatly enjoyed his Les Halles cookbook, a coffee table volume which was food porn for the eyes.

Anyone expecting the Ugly American Abroad had to be taken aback by the tenor or A Cook’s Tour. Surprisingly Bourdain was a Walt Whitman-esque softie, warm and effusive about everyone, saving his noted contempt only for American tourists who overstepped their boundaries. It was already a cliché to advance the idea that if you wanted to understand a (foreign) culture which was not of one’s own that maybe a solid way of comprehension was through analyzing their cuisine. Furthermore Bourdain sought out less than the noted chefs and restauranteurs of a given country/city for an abundance of “street” cooks who fed the “regulars.” In other words he sought out the working class and the poor for an illuminating clarification of an “exotic” locale such as Vietnam or Haiti. And did so in a manner which somehow avoiding being condescending and vaguely racist. 

But I didn’t follow him to the shores of CNN for reasons that I can’t quit remember. It probably had less to do with my loathing of the network–which is only fairly recent and maybe a general exhaustion from Bourdain himself. I didn’t dislike Bourdain, yet I stopped finding him engrossing. There was a certain sameness to it all, a lack of arc and mystery. 

Maybe I had also run the course with the personae and the scenario. I’ve never been that partial to the travel series anyways. C’est la vie. 

A celebrity suicide without an obvious pre-existing cause-and-effect always shocks because of collective idolatry factors across society. We who are not rich, powerful and famous can not imagine anyone who is rich, powerful, popular and famous of having problems so severe that they would elect to terminate their lives. Unless the celebrity is known to have major drug addiction or other serious mental health prior the great majority of us are both shocked and appalled. 

The mystery of Bourdain’s demise–as he did not leave behind a note–is one of the twin topical pillars of the documentary Roadrunner(2021) by Morgan Neville

The other tower is of course celebrity. For those of us more interested in Bourdain’s early years, for the obsessions which gave birth to Kitchen Confidential we must be in the scant minority. For Neville the existence of the book is only a springboard to rush into spotlighting how the memoir made him famous. There is virtually nothing in the documentary about how he truly became a “foodie,” of what food meant to him as a child and at different stages of his life. What did he eat when he was a full-fledged junkie? What was his relation to food and to the restaurant industry? Apart from the “bad boy” phenomenon the book carefully crafted for the reader’s consideration, there was an almost strident clarion call to once again elevate food in America. For all his leather jackets, tattoos and sneers, Bourdain was as much an evangelist as Julia Childs. Though an atheist his belief in cuisine was religious, an ecumenical, spiritual activity beyond mere nourishment. He railed against vegetarians and vegans because they denied themselves the fullest range of epicurean surprises, delights and  pleasures. 

None of this truly matters to Roadrunner. The meat of the film(pardon the pun) is about Bourdain becoming a celebrity nomad, the Paul Theroux of a medium where food consumption and televised travel overlap. Where his growing celebrity attracts celebrities from other medium, thus a lot of footage of the subject interacting with Iggy Pop or John Lurie, plus showcasing snippets from his numerous television appearances, from talk shows to The Simpsons.

To be fair to the documentarian this was how Bourdain accrued his true fame, and to his credit he extensively spotlights the people behind the scenes of his two series, who were with him for years and often became his dear friends. They narrate the story with a poignant weight, a chorus of smart, feeling, perceptive men and women with a front row seat to the alpha and omega of Anthony Bourdain.

A noticeable and rather likeable quality about Bourdain was the loyalty and lengths of his friendships. Until the end of his life he avoided burning his bridges even as he coped with the demands of fame.

The delayed entrance of Asia Argento to the story and Neville’s narrative reaction to her is a serious impediment of the documentary’s consideration. It practically screams YOKO ONO while relegating Bourdain suddenly to a pathetic John Lennon figure.

The Italian actress, director, former show biz kid and agent provacteur did not agree to be interviewed for the project, appearing in only archival footage.

Troubling archival footage.

Neville provides virtually no backstory for Argento, aside from Bourdain himself providing a few scattered remarks. This is both unfortunate and inexcusable, as Argento is a figure bound to be unknown to 99% of the documentary’s audience beyond vague American mainstream media oversimplifications as Bourdain’s last girlfriends, an Italian movie star and one of the #MeToo accusers of Harvey Weinstein.

This reeks of a lazy, sexist and simplistic bent from the director. Argento is one of the more fascinating of actresses from anywhere. Her father Dario was one of the leading directors of Italian giallo films including the horror classic Suspiria, which has been remade into English a few times over the decades. Her mother Daria Nicolodi was an actress who often appeared in her ex-husband’s films. In Roadrunner someone describes Bourdain’s first wife as a Nancy Spungen type, but Asia Argento is a real Nancy or Courtney Love type. She’s ever bit as punk rock or grunge as Bourdain. Her fiery first film as an actor-director-screenwriter, Scarlet Diva, is a messy but feverishly intoxicating semi-autobiographical account of her career–including an infamous encounter with an American movie mogul clearly modeled on Harvey Weinstein. And the movie was released–without American fanfare–in 2ooo.

And her social media posts seem to acknowledge she does more than dabble in the occult and witchcraft.

I haven’t seen many of her movies, but I do remember the almost feral intensity highlighting the roles I’ve seen.

But Neville seems content to cast her as the villain in Bourdain’s life, even as the “cause” of his suicide while pretending to a narrative objectivity.

Roadrunner moves at a breezy pace especially at first, courtesy of the editing, which has the feel of commercial advertisements,  while being also engrossing and deep. At heart it’s still a “talking heads” documentary, but the panel assembled is up to the task of peeling back the layers of Anthony Bourdain while acknowledging he finally eluded them especially during the frantic last few years of his life.

Neville too is obsessed with this mystery. But unlike Bourdain’s friends, ex-wife and collaborators he has an obligation to provide a more broader outline and depth. And though Bourdain’s many faults are acknowledged, too much of it still seems like a lovestruck poem. (He’s endlessly fascinated by the sight of the subject smoking.) But the greater fault is the narrowness of his focus which borders on the shallow and, as concerns Argento, the malicious.


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