Tropic Sprockets / Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain

By Ian Brockway

Anthony Bourdain is an iconic figure in the realms of food, television and writing. Many grew up with him as he helmed food and travel shows since 2000, most notably No Reservations and Parts Unknown on CNN.

Steeped in the knowledge of transgressive punk and underground literature, notably William Burroughs, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and the work of Hunter Thompson, Bourdain crafted a unique immersive voice: glib and conversational with smooth Lou Reed urban tones. His observations were vivid and pointed. This style became a trademark.

In a new documentary by Morgan Neville, we see the man behind the voice and his words, at times by the technology of deepfake Artificial Intelligence. Whatever the method, controversial or not, one feels at once that this is the true Anthony Bourdain, fresh and fragile.

Bourdain is young, handsome and sweaty, working his way up as dishwasher to line cook to sous chef. He is angular and thin, a tall walker with hair on his head that curls around him like smoke. He dances between the flames of a restaurant kitchen, at one with fire and the sharpness of a knife.

Bourdain secures a position as head chef of Les Halles, a top New York restaurant. He knows the chemistry of food, its aromas and combinations but literature surrounds him and he feasts.

Bourdain writes Kitchen Confidential. It becomes a bestseller, featured on Oprah.

The shy, disciplined chef is flabbergasted. TV executives appear and pitch him a show. He agrees, somewhat by default. After a show on the Travel channel and a few others, CNN approaches the author. The rest is history. No Reservations becomes imbedded in the culture of television.

Bourdain is a perfectionist. After a couple awkward missteps, he receives the idea to present the audience with places and cuisines that they never get the chance to see, using illustrative scenes from classic films that he loves from “Apocalypse Now” to Fellini.

Bourdain found his niche. He wanted to immerse himself into experiences with abandon, no matter what they happened to be, in the spirit of William Burroughs, Hemingway or Thompson.

He succeeds but underneath he has a restless unease. Is my show good enough? Who is my show really helping? These are some questions the author wrestles with and the camera captures Bourdain giving a haunted stare.

The film features many of Bourdain’s friends, like chef Eric Ripert and David Chang. Painfully, Chang says Bourdain hurt him saying that he would never make a good father. The remark burns Chang to this day. The artist and painter David Choe admits that Bourdain let him down by his act of suicide and poignantly breaks down in tears, while Iggy Pop, and the blues musician and painter John Lurie are mystified.

Bourdain is an obsessive worker in the film and a workaholic. He has harmony with Ottavia Busia and a daughter. After many years, the relationship goes south.

Bourdain meets Asia Argento, a goth maven with piercing Mediterranean eyes and vanilla buttercream skin. He is hooked.

In one scene, Bourdain holds a black umbrella to shade Asia for a walk in the Italian summer. The two hold hands: an urban chef nightwalker and a sable mermaid. Here are two vampire lovers looking upon the set of a spaghetti western. Watch out.

Bourdain is driven to present the unseen, the hidden, the joys of living and the horror of war. He achieves celebrity status. The film suggests that the pressures of forever shifting under the weight of a new divorce and a new love, wore him down. In moments, Bourdain is intoxicated by Asia, inspired by her Me-too quest, only to resent the daylight hours and the sun’s scorching rays.

Both CNN and the nightshade of Amor left him restless, intense and unquenched. One sees Bourdain haggard and taciturn. Perhaps there was no place left for the author to inhabit where he could feel the kiss, a new taste or a daring love and observe moments as a kid once more.

This is a haunted and affecting documentary, where Anthony Bourdain is sizzling, smoky, quirky and compassionate, right in front of your eyes.

The last scene where a mural of Bourdain is prismatically defaced by his loyal friend David Choe is extremely poignant. With a few splashes of paint, the man is a cult figure, a Day of the Dead rainbow skull (with one projecting eye and a twisted smile) as if painted by Ralph Steadman. Fear not: Bourdain Lives.

Write Ian at ianfree11@yahoo.com

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