Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 28, 2021 6:09 pm 
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The man who had everything - and it wasn't enough

Three years ago, shortly before his sixty-second birthday, the popular American chef, food writer, and television host Anthony Bourdain hanged himself at Le Chambard Hotel Restaurant in Alsace, Kaysersberg-Vignoble, France, to be found by his longtime friend and then collaborator, French chef √Čric Ripert. He left no note. As we look back over Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, the suicide hangs over it. Clips show Bourdain thought of death, including his own by suicide, rather regularly. Some think it is a little soon for the Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville to have made a film about the life of this vibrant, articulate, highly-strung man, this artist of food, words, and images, who for his shows traveled the world, exploring the far-flung places, tasting everything, above all including "the nasty bits," teaching himself and reporting to his audience about all he found out as he reportedly mellowed and wised up. The pain is still very vivid for those hurt, saddened and angered by this sudden, tragic event. You might say, surveying the man as this film does, that he was headed toward such an end; but the end came with him still full of joy and energy for life and that end surely might have been averted, and he gave no clear warning that it was coming. Indeed if he could look back today he might be surprised himself that this thing ever happened. Anthony Bourdain had extraordinary luck and success. You could say he was a man who had everything but still found it not enough. "Everything" is a subjective concept, however; and so is "not enough."

In a way this film too is itself also everything, and not enough. Its apparent capaciousness and inclusiveness don't keep it from seeming to lack penetration into the ultimate, intimate truths of the man. Morgan Neville had access to thousands of hours of film footage and doubtless much other data besides, including, of course, the many interviews he was able to conduct with people who could describe their friend and collaborator, their "Tony." The director could have constructed many different portraits with so many images and voices of Bourdain - a man who, by the way, he never himself met. (Had they met, might Neville have refrained from having Bourdain's voice artificially mimicked to "speak" some lines he wrote but never "said"? But the matter, though good for publicity, seems trivial, another even more irrelevant detail.)

Bourdain's distinctive good looks were part of his success as a celebrity. These of course are quickly captured in film clip and still photo images. Tall, thin, erect, long-faced, luminous, curly-haired, emphatic of speech; perpetually lighting and puffing cigarettes; still able somehow to make that unfashionable gesture seem elegant. Cool yet emphatic, free with f-words and yet never at a loss for the mot juste;, plain-spoken, vivid, metaphorical, colorful, shy at first, according to his longtime TV collaborators, yet eloquent, the kind of guy who always had something memorable to say. With these characteristics, one quickly understands that he almost had to become a TV food personality, a lone-traveling, free-speaking, hyper-articulate one, exploring the great, exotic world of cuisine and society in his own way. (Interestingly, when the shows began, his collaborators learned he had never up to then actually traveled at all. His TV work bespeaks a great released hunger.)

It emerges that what's lacking from Neville's portrait is much that is, on reflection, quite essential. The lingua franca this film speaks is footage of Bourdain's celebrity years, about the last eighteen or so of his life. Missing are most of the man's early years. Missing also is much of what he would have to tell us about food. Missing also, much about the cuisines he explored in his travels. All that, you might say, is found in the books he wrote and shows he wrote and performed, the latter vividly available on Netflix, "Cooks Tour," "No Reservations," "Parts Unknown." But there is a sense of how elusive all this is. (There is the story of the 2006 Lebanon war - the Israeli bombing of Beirut - he stepped into, and out of, but nothing of the Lebanese cuisine he eventually celebrated. There is mention of his risky Congo episode and his memory of Sheen and Brando in a favorite film, Coppola's Apocalypse Now. But what did Congolese food taste like to him? That we don't learn.) Food and the taste of it are the essence of Bourdain's life, but fall into the background here in the filmmaker's obsessive focus on the making with the TV shows and the unmaking of the man.

The film and its clips take up with Bourdain toward the end of his mediocre career as a line cook, then chef, then chef-manager of Les Halles bistro in New York, just when his book Kitchen Confidental had been published (May 22, 2000) and immediately became a Times bestseller and made him famous overnight - when he went from the private person who gathered the stories, gossip, and home truths about the rough and ready world of high pressure restaurant kitchens that you can read in Kitchen Confidential, to the public person nobody really knew. Before that, the preceding forty-four years, aren't specifically covered.

The early years are so lightly sketched in some reviewers have reported walking out thinking Bourdain grew up in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In fact he was from New Jersey. Provincetown he refers to as associated with his primary drug years, when he used cocaine and became addicted to heroin while apparently working at a menial job at a restaurant. We do hear from his brother, but the impression is more like the voice of yet another charmed and disappointed friend. It's said he quit heroin "cold turkey," meaning presumably without rehab, repeated tries, or 12-step meetings. When asked how he could do this, he says, "I looked in the mirror and saw someone who still seemed worth saving." This anodyne remark shows Bourdain at his most bland and uninformative, though it might have been the only truth he knew. Often the talking heads say Bourdain was "an addict," and he himself admitted to this. One friend says he got that Bourdain quit heroin by shifting his addiction elsewhere.

Elsewhere to what? To life, maybe, to writing, to pursuing the next adventure and taking on every challenge so hard and fast they distracted him, as he confesses - traveling 250 days a year - from seeing enough of his first wife, Nancy Putkoski (1985-2005), not heard from, a long relationship that ended with the first years of celebrity; or of his second wife, the Italian mixed martial-arts fighter Ottavia Busia-Bourdain, or of his only child, Ariane, born to Ottavia in 2007. (We hear nothing from Nancy. We hear regularly from Ottavia - in accented English that's a bit hard to follow; we hear nothing from his final flame, Asia Argento. The film's hints that the suicide's "cause" might have been problems with the volatile and powerful Asia have been strongly criticized. Yet clips of her effect on a shoot of a Bourdain TV episode do show her to have been the Yoko Ono of this culinary Beatle.)

The addiction may contain clues to the suicide, certainly to the man. But all this is beginning to sound like tabloid gossip speculation. One feels Neville indeed did not wait long enough to compose his portrait. What he has left us here are tear sheets from Anthony Bourdain's celebrity: his TV shows, memories and expostulations from his bereaved, angry, hurt friends; film clips we almost might have gathered from Netflix by ourselves; the kind of information-overkill celebrity life provides, leaving us knowing, if not precisely nothing, too little more than we already did starting out.

Tony Bourdain is still very much alive. He is also very much dead. This is an energetic sifting-through of information. It is not a penetrating deep-research documentary biography. Perhaps none is possible. Documentary can take many forms. It can be made at home - or take one to the far corners of the earth. It can be a sifting-through of data, if the right data in the right way. A recent stunning example is Michal Weits's Blue Box, where the filmmaker read through her great grandfather's 5,000-page diary to illuminate Jewish acquisition of land from Palestinians and its continuing expropriation after the founding of the State of Israel. But a great documentary usually needs to be more than a sifting-through and re-editing of film. One feels however great Morgan Neville's effort here, he did not quite travel the extra mile as his subject did.

Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, 119 mins., debuted at Tribeca Jun. 11, 2021, also showing at Silver Spring (AFI Docs) Jun. 25, Nantucket Jun. 26; and will be shown at Melbourne Aug. 10. US and Canadian theatrical release Jul. 16. Screened for this review at Landmark Shattuck, Berkeley, CA Jul. 27, 2021. Metacritic rating 79%.

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