On a Film About Anthony Bourdain

Saigon alley restaurant row.

There is often no way to explain a suicide for those left behind. Not even a note tells the full story. There is damage done to those who knew or loved the person who took their own life. There are always questions. Should I have known? What did I fail to see? What did I fail to do? In short, how am I to blame?

At the very end, the recent documentary on the life of Anthony Bourdain puts forth a few theories, but none is satisfactory, because only Bourdain knows why. Knew why. And perhaps he didn’t really think it through before it was too late.

I paid little attention to Bourdain while he was alive, because based on the promos for his various television shows and his first book, it appeared to me that he was attempting to make a living by being a jerk.

Only after his death, as I was preparing for my own long trip around the world, did I begin going through Bourdain’s work for inspiration on how I might tell my own story. I was surprised by what I found. I should have given him a chance when he first came into the international consciousness as a traveler.

As the documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain reveals, Bourdain was not a travel television host, he was not a cooking show host. He was a writer. He was a writer who was traveling the world and telling his audience what the experience was like. It seems as if the first forty years of his life were a mistake. He was a writer, who accidentally became a cook and through some miracle of talent and connections, he was discovered.

But while the benefits of new found success in mid-life were enormous, the way Bourdain spent the first four decades did not prepare him to suddenly be the center of world attention. To lose privacy. To lose anonymity.

Like his friends and family, it is impossible as a viewer to not see hints of what was to come by watching his television shows back to back and postmortem. There is the episode in which Bourdain recounts his upbringing while on a psychiatrist’s couch. There are the constant references to drug and alcohol abuse. There is the alcohol abuse that is in full view as part of the television he was making along with the cigarette smoking and the constant oblique and sometimes direct references to his own death. There are the blank stares into the distance when the conversation turns to happiness or the meaning of life. Should we have seen it coming?

There is one quote from one episode that seemed to sum up Bourdain’s approach to life to me as someone who knew him only through the persona he presented on television. Some people, he said, are careful about what they eat and want to treat their bodies like a temple. “I want to treat my body as an amusement park ride” and experience everything I possibly can while I can. And on TV, that’s what he seemed to do.

Saigon food market.

A journalism professor once told a class I was taking that “there is nothing new under the sun” when it comes to writing, or radio, or television, or documentaries. That is true, but there are parallels to Bourdain’s work. Charles Kuralt comes to mind. Bourdain would no doubt love to be mentioned in a class with Mark Twain and Hunter S. Thompson, but he would also be embarrassed by those comparisons.

He did manage to find a unique way to bring his audience along, to experience a new place, and to present his own point of view without preaching. He did not wrap up his travel documentaries with; “That’s the way it is.” He finished most often by asking, is that the way it is, or by leaving room for the audience to ask its own questions, or draw its own conclusions.

Television is a place where formulas are recognized and copied over and over again. It is telling that more than three years after Bourdain’s death no one has been able to replicate his style or directly fill the void. It can’t be done because, if it is possible in television, Bourdain seemed authentic. It’s why the hints of a troubled mind that we think we can clearly see by re-watching his shows are so unsettling. He seemed to be himself on camera, and if that is so, we feel we should have checked in on him and asked if he was okay. Did anyone ask?

No one who knows Bourdain only through television, knew him. That’s clear. But according to the movie about his life, even those who knew him did not have the full picture. The film provides no satisfying answers, but it does end as he would have wanted it to end, if he meant what he said when he was with us.

Photojournalism for Brands and Ideas.