Both Eyes Open on “Roadrunner”
I’ve been unable to shake Morgan Neville’s documentary about Anthony Bourdain because I so clearly see myself in its subject.
I was humbled by that, I was inspired by that, but mostly I was frightened because Bourdain’s story doesn’t have a happy ending.
I’ve spent most of my adult life feeling restless, unsure of where and how to be, endlessly curious about the world and endlessly judgmental about myself, chasing the natural high that comes from leaving various homes and arriving back again, a path Bourdain forged for all to see.
Morgan Neville knows we come to a Bourdain doc desiring answers whether we’ll admit that or not. We come to get closer to the WHY. Why did this man kill himself? How could this man I admire leave his daughter behind? Why must he, must people be so goddamn complicated? Why must the world be so goddamn complicated? Why must I be so goddamn complicated?
Neville addresses our voyeuristic desires, he deflects and reflects them back at us, and doesn’t seek to make any conclusions about this Why. And yet…
In a clip from Parts Unknown, Bourdain meets with a Vietnamese man who lost his legs in the war. The man was unsure Bourdain would want to meet him, would want to see how he lives. Bourdain’s unflinching response is why we revere him: we, America need to see the damage we’ve wrought. “The least I can do is look at the world with both eyes open,” Bourdain says.
Later, we find Bourdain in a therapist’s office abroad, I forget where. He lies down on the prototypical couch, making the easy joke, parodying therapy. I did the same thing at my first therapy session, because I was uncomfortable, because I was scared, because when there literally was a couch to lie on, the cliche was tangible and easier to face than my fears about what I couldn’t say out loud.
While it’s tempting to mind-read Bourdain beyond the veil, it’s impossible to know what he is truly feeling in this moment. But I can’t help but wonder what his motivations were for filming this therapy session. Bourdain would be the first to admit that the presence of a camera irrevocably alters reality. He wasn’t naive to how his presence changed the places he visited and how an American crew warped what was captured on camera. Bourdain’s ideal travel show wouldn’t feature himself in front of the camera; it would just be a POV shot wandering through the places he visited. But even that wouldn’t be free from bias.
And neither is this film, given the controversy surrounding the use of an AI to clone Bourdain’s voice for three lines in the film. Even if Bourdain wrote the words that were narrated by Not-Him, I don’t like that Neville didn’t disclose this to his audience. But I believe a lot of the outcry stems from the fact that we as audiences were duped and that we’re suffering from an outdated understanding of nonfiction. We believe documentaries to be true, or we desire them to be, we need them to be because we want clear answers where none are to be found. All documentaries are framed and shaped by their author(s). At this point, we should have learned that we can’t take anything at face-value anymore. And I don’t think this ruins the movie at all; I think the film only becomes more fascinating and I imagine Bourdain might relish being at the center of this conversation and would sniff bullshit on both sides of the ethical argument.
But back to therapy. Even if I found myself questioning whether Bourdain was taking this televised therapy seriously, he still remained honest, or at least he was the TV persona honest version of himself. When the therapist asks whether he wants to change, whether he can change, Bourdain confesses therapy isn’t for him. He responds: “I suspect it’s too late.”
This belief, this negative self-talk becomes a haunting self-fulfilling prophecy I can’t shake because it’s so familiar. It’s too late to change = I don’t want to change. Or more accurately: What if I fail? What if I can’t change? What if this flawed person is who I am?
Throughout the film, we find Bourdain walking along the shores of his childhood, the beaches of Provincetown, Mass. He wonders why his younger self remembers this place as so awful, realizing in the moment that it’s paradise. I’ve had this experience whenever I go back to my childhood home in Edmonds, WA. I felt this way when I recently returned to the Ithaca College campus, my alma mater, during a cross-country honeymoon road trip with my wife. The trip had a dual purpose: we were also figuring out where to relocate. But when we arrived back at our current home in LA, sharing our morning on the patio with our cat, all of us watching the squirrels tease and the birds titter, I wondered: how did I ever think this was so awful? This is paradise. What am I always running from?
Like so many of us, Bourdain was obsessed with living a normal life. He longed after it, he fantasized about it… and of course, he snubbed every chance at it he could. But what the hell is a normal life anyway? Why is someone as singular as Bourdain craving normalcy?
Loneliness. We believe in the illusion of normalcy, that if I’m normal, then I’d belong, then I’d be happy, then I’d be complete. We believe in normalcy because for our whole lives we’ve been labeled weird, different and wrong for anything that isn’t socially accepted that day of the week, a rubric that is impossible to pass unscathed no matter who you are, and one I’m going to try to stop adhering to. Because fuck normalcy. Fuck trying to live up to whatever standards society holds as “right” or “normal,” fuck trying to live up to an imaginary perfect version of myself. This review is full of problems and I’m going to post it anyway in hopes that I can learn from the experience.
My desire for a normal life is a bullshit grass-is-greener feeling indicative of being someone never satisfied with my life because I’m never satisfied with myself, an anxiety-fueled sentiment that only succeeds in ignoring all the beautiful, wonderful things and people I’m surrounded by at every moment.
Bourdain never settled, never accepted mediocrity, always striving to be better, to be and see and experience more. This is why we love him, but it’s also a never-ending journey, one I entirely empathize with.
It’s never enough because I can do better. I can always do better. Bourdain was an artist, a perfectionist, and like all of us, a fucked up flawed human who was brave enough to show more of that to the world than most. That’s why we love him and that’s why we miss him, and that’s why Roadrunner shows us that there remains much more to learn from him.
Like Tony, travel saved my life. While it would be another ten years before I admitted to some form of depression, my DUI finally made me realize something was wrong. I found myself on the path of alcoholism and stopped. I started doing things I wanted to do, not what I was supposed to. I went to Europe, I wandered and I wondered. I started to notice, to write, to listen. To learn about myself and my place in the world. How small I was. How small my problems were and are. How insignificant I was. It was beautiful. And it’s something I need reminding — this is why I always leave and this is why I will always return.
Bourdain dared to explore the world and see it with both eyes open. But to my eyes, he was unwilling to look inward with the same kindness and curiosity that he did upon everyone and everything else.
He is the titular roadrunner — and while I’m tempted to make a clumsy comparison to Wile E. Coyote as society or the tentacles of celebrity, it doesn’t feel quite right. What does, even if I’m falling for the hanging fruit, the cliche right in front of my nose, is that the only thing the roadrunner can’t outrun, the only thing Bourdain couldn’t outrun is himself. And I’m no different.
There’s no magical locale, no exotic food or drink, no perfect sentence or drug, no perfect episode of TV that will chase away what I’m running from.
Depression tricks us. Using the imagination that makes us special, we paint ourselves into the loneliest corner on Earth: I am the only person in the world that feels how I feel and I will always feel this way. I will always be alone. “It’s too late.”
But it’s not true. Don’t believe it.