By Marie- Renee Goulet
Why? The sudden loss of Anthony Bourdain by suicide in June 2018 left us all gutted and shocked.
Bourdain was a tall, charismatic, and incredibly candid former chef with our dream career. But depression can be debilitating. He was a brilliant writer who did not leave a note. He was so open and honest about his struggle with addictions that I imagined he would have been able to seek help before ending it all. But how do you ask for help when you have the best job in the world? You are paid millions to travel the world and eat, often visiting people with real problems, like starvation; how do you express being unhappy without feeling like an undeserving son of a bitch? Listening to Medium Raw on Audiobook, I cannot imagine how he went from speaking of protecting his beloved only daughter to abandoning her.
Anthony was so much more than a chef. I enjoyed his books, and one could argue that, even though he expressly said he wasn’t, he was a true journalist. Bourdain could get his subjects to open up like no other. He had the type of intellectual curiosity that made every episode of his travel show more informative than any travel or history book about any destination. He was also a great filmmaker. Take any episode of Parts Unknown (2013-2018). None of them follow the same structure or the same visual style. For each, the writing and direction are inspired by a movie genre. Reading “World Travel: An Irreverent Guide” directing the Quebec episode of Parts Unknown amid quiet expanses of northern snow and ice, found inspiration in Fargo (1996), directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), directed by Atom Egoyan.” Or in Italy “For episodes of No Reservations, The Layover, and Parts Unknown, Tony and the crew drew on the films La Dolce Vita (1960), directed by Federico Fellini; Mamma Roma (1962), directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini; and Via Veneto (1964), directed by Giuseppe Lipartiti.” As for the Vietnam, Borneo or Cambodia episodes, “Over many years of making TV, Tony and the crew drew moody inspiration again and again from the classic Vietnam war film Apocalypse Now (1979), directed by Francis Ford Coppola”. The show was about so much more than food.
Aside from reliving some of the highlights of Anthony Bourdain’s life and career, I was hoping for answers from Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, directed and produced by Morgan Neville. At this point, I’m not even sure what Neville was trying to say or who the target audience was. I have watched every episode of Parts Unknown, read Bourdain’s nonfiction books, and watched numerous interviews. If I hadn’t, I would have quit watching this documentary in the first hour. Neville manages to make this enigmatic, interesting character boring. The background music for the first hour is annoying and distracting. I couldn’t make myself care about the opinions of many of those interviewed. It is ok to have long-time work partners express themselves, but they are not psychiatrists specializing in depression, addiction and mental illness. The filmmaker is documenting a suicide but never once clinically addresses depression or drug addiction. Neville takes for granted that we know everything about Bourdain’s early life and terrible end and never fully fleshed his subject.
Suppose Neville had focused on immediate family and the deep friendship between Bourdain and Eric Rupert, a man Anthony described as his best friend in the world. In that case, the documentary may have resonated more with me. Rupert was on location shooting an episode of Parts Unknown when he had the tragic experience of finding his friend’s body.
A mash-up of a Cook’s Tour, No Reservation, and Parts Unknown bits was not satisfying. I can watch full episodes on my own. I recognized parts of Medium Raw’s audiobook recording being used as voice over of family movies. That was nice. But knowing Neville uses Artificial Intelligence to make Bourdain say things out loud he had written but never said, I found myself not trusting anything I had not heard Bourdain say when he was alive. The only person I wanted to hear on the subject of the last few days was Eric, who could have shed some light on Bourdain’s state of mind in his last four days answered: “This is something I do not talk about.” At this point, If I am the filmmaker, I scrap the project.
Things were getting better in the second hour, but quickly, the film takes a strange turn in finding a reason for Anthony hanging himself. The closest we come to an answer is: he was traveling 250 days a year which brings isolation and loneliness and his girlfriend of the moment betrayed him by appearing in a tabloid with another man. Neville stops just short of blaming Asia Argento for Anthony’s death and then doesn’t allow her to respond, saying it would open a Pandora’s box and railroad his documentary. He noted her story was so complex that it brought on too many questions that could not be addressed. So, it is then OK to throw her under the bus and say nothing else? Rule number one to me, if you can’t give all the context, shut up. I am not defending her; she is not a likeable character if you find the time to explore her story. Anthony was a grown-ass man. He made his decisions, and if you are making a documentary, you shouldn’t improvise a bad guy to elevate your weak project.
Because there isn’t a single narrator and the director uses Anthony’s voice as if he was telling the story, the documentary feels like multiple parts of “something” without any connective tissue. If Neville’s target audience was Bourdain’s superficial fans, who would want to spend two hours with him and maybe seeing a few minutes of previously unseen footage, the documentary sort of works. It explains why I saw so many glowing reviews. For me, and maybe for those hoping for a deeper narrative, the documentary doesn’t quite cut it. He deserved better than a montage and colleagues airing grievances of his actions in the last few days of his life, a time where deep depression may have been clouding his judgment.
Eric Ripert was a true friend.
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.