This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news.
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on August 22, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
HE grew up addicted to imagination, learning about the world through movies. He got addicted to heroin. He got addicted to cooking. He got addicted to writing, then travelling, then creating, then loving, and finally, living. By the time he died by suicide, celebrity chef and TV presenter Anthony Bourdain was addicted to feeling. He left behind a legacy of words and food and places and courage and boundless curiosity – a man who turned the globe into a never-ending memoir. He was political without knowing it, human without flaunting it, dying without fearing it, and therefore the boundless soul of the life-affirming documentary, Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. It’s only fitting that this was the sort of moving and naked film I desperately needed to see without realising it.
Lately I’ve been struggling with mental health and grief and illness and, well, just life. So, watching one of the most famous faces of all time bleed on camera and turning his emotional voyeurism into art felt therapeutic. In ways that surreptitiously broken audiences usually do, I felt less alone while noticing an artist making up for lost time and then losing in that race against himself. It’s not a tragedy, mind you, because it’s about the strength that deepens the hurt, and about the hope that amplifies the hopelessness. Filmmaker Morgan Neville charts Bourdain’s remarkable journey with a candour that defined the proudly complicated man. He does it through a mix of archival footage, A.I. generated voice overs (not creepy at all), interviews with the family and friends and ex-partners, and colleagues he worked with on his popular part-travel, part-food, part-personal-essay TV series, Parts Unknown.
The result is strangely uplifting, not in a celebrating-artists-after-dying sort of way, but in a that-great-fool-pulled-a-fast-one-on-us kind of way. It doesn’t seek answers, instead framing the questions surrounding his addictive nature without a hook and a dot. On television, there was always a sense of watching Bourdain living both a dream and a nightmare at once, traversing the forbidden line between cultural empathy and self-apathy. In the documentary, he even speaks of how he chose to experience the planet because perhaps he was too afraid of being a mediocre chef in a middling restaurant. Perhaps he was too afraid of not being the father and husband that fiction had conditioned him to aspire for. Or the legend that literature had tricked him into believing. The film-making — respectful and intimate at once — taps into the speed, escapisms and joy of his moments, revealing an Icarus-like personality that didn’t mind falling as long as it meant he could fly.
There’s a lot of loneliness and pain, of course, but the documentary somehow manages to distinguish the craft of remembering from the grief of thinking. It’s disarming to see his friends — no strangers to fame themselves — curse him for being selfish enough to leave in a fit of characteristic rage, and then weep for the whirlwind of unfulfilled promises. You almost sense that they’re scared for themselves at some level, because he left as the very manifestation of the fact that there’s no blueprint for satisfaction. You also sense that they resent him — like people who’re struggling to tell mourning from estrangement — for becoming their story without letting them become his.
The most striking part of the documentary is the way it looks at Bourdain diving head-first into the wounds and scars of different countries. His show feels like an odyssey to atone for his stubborn career in the kitchen, and an effort to open himself to the risk of being consumed by hospitality and hatred of new spaces. We see that he was at first a terrible and quiet host, unwilling to confront so much as occupy the social cuisines of the world. Vietnam changed him, and he never looked back, striving to visit Congo and Laos and Haiti and Libya and all the difficult lands with the idiosyncrasies of a journalist and the wonder of a storyteller. It’s hard not to be affected by his childlike approach to exploring and forging relationships, as well as his playful existentialism in the face of immense attachment. That’s a triumph of Neville’s ability to convey that Bourdain isn’t a man who wanted to be understood; he needed to be himself, somewhere between cinema and life, walking and travelling.
It’s a testament to the way this film stays in the present despite speaking about the past. It’s also a testament to the way Roadrunner suggests that goodness and greatness need not be joined at the hip. That heroism and anti-heroism need not be mutually exclusive. And most of all, that shame and audacity are two sides of the same coin. You see it, and for some reason, visualise him as a vintage superhero flying furious circles around the planet not to turn back time, but to push it forward. Not to reverse his grief, but accelerate his star-crossed romance with life.