What We Can Learn From The Dark Side Of Anthony Bourdain
When I heard of Anthony Bourdain’s passing in 2018, it hit me hard. And when I recently watched the new documentary Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain, it drove home some of the reasons why his death left so many people reeling.
Whether or not you’re familiar with Bourdain’s work, you won’t want to miss this week’s video, in which my brother Stephen and I unpack some of the life-changing lessons from the film.
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Do you know what I saw last night? I saw Roadrunner the Anthony Bourdain movie.
Oh, how was that? I want to see that.
How was it? Well, you know Steve that you and me both are huge, huge Anthony Bourdain fans. And it was, I think it’s pretty safe to say there have been certain celebrity deaths that have meant a lot to me. One of them was Steve Irwin, when he died. Those of you that don’t know that is the crocodile, what was it? What was his name? Crocodile Hunter. Yeah. Which I thought I was right in saying “Hunter, Jameson, but then I realized his image actually was the complete opposite of that. It was like “Crocodile Lover” would have been more appropriate. But when he died it meant a lot to me. Robin Williams of course, I know that meant a lot to so many people. Not least of which, because it was just so at odds with the feeling that he brought to so many people. But Bourdain was a huge, huge one for me.
I think it was probably the most upsetting because, in my lifetime, I had followed Bourdain so closely and was so attached to his work and his shows and I suppose his lens, the lens through which he appeared to view life was so beautiful and not, relatable because it contains so much light and darkness. But you saw a guy who had a lot of darkness in him who seemed to still have this rebirth in his 50s and 60s that allowed him to go around the world and see all of these places and meet so many different people and have adventures. And I know that there was a kind of culturally global inspiration he provided to people that it made you want to not just travel, it made you want to explore. It made you want to get out of your bubble. It made you want to go and interact with people. It made you want to try things that you hadn’t tried before because you saw a person who was really living.
It was like this master class on the art of having an adventurous life.
Yeah, yeah. And I suppose to some extent it’s in a way, like a lot of great TV shows and movies, there’s an element of fantasy in there because the reality of Bourdain’s life, and you don’t need to watch the documentary to know this, or to even intuit this, the reality of his life was being on the road 250 plus days a year. And that is, there’s a line in the movie, and I’m not going to give away lots of the movie or anything like that ’cause people can go see it, but there’s a line in the movie where a musician whose close to Bourdain says, “If it feels so good coming back home every time and it feels so good leaving home every time”.
And it kind of reminds me of that Jerry Seinfeld joke in his latest special, where he talks about you go out to a show in the evening and, while you’re at the show, at some point you’re thinking, “Oh, we should really get home soon”. And then you get home and the whole joke is no one wants to be anywhere. You don’t want to be at home, you want to get out and do something. And then when you’re out doing something you say, “I can’t wait to be home”.
And I’m sure much of Bourdain’s life was like that. People said of Bourdain that he was always rushing to get to the next place. And it’s funny because we watch, the fantasy of Parts Unknown is watching someone who’s just in this perennial state of travel and loving life and loving meeting new people and so on. But you’re not seeing what it’s like when the cameras aren’t on, you’re not seeing the feeling of being in yet another hotel and not really wanting to be in the place you’re in or you’re not seeing the in-between scenes, you’re just seeing the scenes they wanted to show you.
You’re not seeing the moments of loneliness, you’re not seeing the moments of missing family, and in his case, missing a daughter or a wife or a girlfriend. And that’s why we love Parts Unknown, but in a way we’ll never actually achieve the feeling of Parts Unknown. We’ll never be able to travel and quite, we’ll always be, in the same way that Bourdain was with Parts Unknown, always trying to kind of relive the stories of the movies he’d watched, cause he actually didn’t travel much till later in life.
Mm-hmm, yeah. Yeah, he didn’t have much money for a long time, right.
No. And he liked movies, and he had a kind of encyclopedic knowledge of movies, and so around the world, he started having fun, using Parts Unknown to kind of recapture and recapitulate scenes from movies he loved. And he would go to Vietnam and recapture Apocalypse Now. And be reliving scenes from it in his head. And that’s him trying to capture an essence that his mind had bottled at one stage or another that, in a way can never quite capture it, but it’s always imitating it. And you and I, Steve, have traveled where we’re trying to imitate Parts Unknown.
So we’re doing an imitation of an imitation, and always trying to recapture something that we’ve seen, trying to bottle something that means something to us. And we’ve literally showed up in places and looked at where did Bourdain go when he was in this place? What restaurants did he eat at? And then you go to those restaurants and you’re trying to relive that.
I’m sure many people have, yeah. I was in Vietnam and went to the Obama, Bourdain noodle restaurant.
Right, right. And I don’t even mean in a detrimental way, in a derogatory way. So much of our lives is trying to capture the essence of something that is emotional to us, that means something to us. Trying to recreate an experience in the world that we have in our head, always trying to reach for some ideal, some romantic view of the world, a person, a place, a business, an idea, a creation. Even when we write a book we’re reaching for some ideal we have in our head of what we want this book to sound like. Or when I create a show on tour I’m always reaching for some idea I have of the show in my head.
Yeah because you want to share the things that excited you when you saw them and you want to create them either for yourself or other people. You want to do the same.
Yeah. And in a way the show ends up being good if it kind of captures 60% of what’s in my head, or sometimes even less. But there was a real darkness in him. Quite clearly there was a real darkness in him that followed him around or that reappeared frequently in his life. And I suppose it’s important, the movie that I watched last night in Roadrunner, which I encourage everyone to go and see, is important from this point of view. Not as a way to say that having a romantic view of life is misguided. Or reaching for an ideal is childish.
But to not think that anyone else is doing a better job of capturing that ideal than we are, to realize that we’re all trying to reach for something transcendent, we’re all trying to reach for something romantic, we’re all trying to reach for something that has deep meaning or feeling to us. And when we can step out of the world of Parts Unknown, which is a, in many ways, an exaggerated, even though Parts Unknown was loved for its authenticity because it felt raw, it was raw.
But it doesn’t mean it wasn’t an exaggerated ideal of a place or of a person and an experience of traveling around the world. The movie I saw last night in Roadrunner was a good, an important antidote to Parts Unknown and the ideal that that creates. It’s a reminder to all of us, that there is another side to that story. So that when we do our version of traveling around the world, even if it’s not literally traveling around the world, when we go for our adventure, our ideal, we understand that there is always the other side to that coin.
There’s always the in between scenes, there’s always the scenes that never made it to the show, that got left on the cutting room floor because they weren’t interesting or because they were too real, too painful, because they didn’t tell the right story. Those moments we can’t avoid in our own lives. They don’t get left on the cutting room floor of our own emotions because we live them all. We have to, we’re forced to live all of that footage in our own lives.
But when we see that footage in other people’s lives and when we get, in a way, I think the road runner movie is as generous as Parts Unknown was to people. Even though it’s raw and who knows whether someone like Bourdain would have ever wanted that to happen? Would any of us want to die and then have the unseen clips of our lives showed that we didn’t choose to be out there? I don’t know, maybe not. We’ll never know.
But it’s an act as generous as Parts Unknown, maybe in some ways even more so, because it gives us a real portrait of the struggle, of the pain, of the depression, of the darkness. And when we have a realistic picture of that in other people, we can not be so hard on ourselves. We can be more compassionate towards ourselves ’cause we can say, “Oh, it’s like that for them too”. Even Bourdain wasn’t living Parts Unknown. Not the way we see it.
Even he wasn’t actually experiencing Parts Unknown the way we experience it. In a way that’s the generosity of Parts Unknown. The generosity of that gift is even he didn’t get to experience it that way. We did and that’s a beautiful thing. But it must always be tempered by the other side of it because otherwise we will always feel like we’re somehow falling short of an ideal that other people have been able to reach. Which is false because they haven’t.
They are living a real life just like we are. And I think that if we can understand that, when the darkness comes for us, we’ll be ready to meet it. And to know that we’re in good company, we’re in the company of our heroes, we’re in the company of the people we look up to, we’re in the company of some of the best people on this earth. We’re not alone in that darkness. And hopefully that knowledge can stop people from getting to the point that Bourdain did, where he decided that that darkness was too much.
Yeah, the empathy and truth of seeing someone else going through it just kind of makes, it makes it not seem like our unique fate when it’s happening to us and we think, “Why, why me? Why is this happening to me?”. It universalizes it.
Yeah. But I, like I said, I love the fact that it didn’t put an overly positive spin on everything. There’s true darkness in that movie as well as light. And I would encourage everyone to go and see it.
And weirdly the great legacy is of Bourdain that he actually did appeal to life lovers in a huge way and made people, a lot of people, it made them sort of want to love life more. Ironically, a lot of what those shows do is make people want to dive into the world more and there’s something really cool about that.
And no one should write off all of that because of the way it ended. And that’s really, really important in life. We live in this infantilized version of images of people these days where everything is angels and demons, everything is someones either wonderful and we should listen to everything they say or they’re corrupted and we should listen to nothing they say. And it’s kind of pathetic.
We should be looking at what’s useful in everybody. The fact that Bourdain took his own life doesn’t change all of the beauty that he brought into the world. And it doesn’t change the truth of that beauty, he accessed it. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to access it at the point that he took his own life. But it didn’t mean that when he was accessing it at those points that it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t true, that it wasn’t something to aspire to.
And I can’t stand the kind of logic that people have where it’s, you could post a quote from a Bourdain and, or anybody, and they’re like, “Well, why would I take advice from someone who clearly couldn’t even have it in them to stay alive or couldn’t even avoid committing this crime or doing this?”. It’s like that is such a childish way to look at the world.
Yeah, I hate that, I hate that.
People are complex, life is complex. And we’ve all been the demon at different points in our lives and we’ve all been the angel at others. And, hopefully, we’ll be the angel more times in our life than will be the demon but both are in us. And let’s hope the demon doesn’t win for us, let’s work to make sure the demon doesn’t win for us. But it doesn’t, people can access truth and then not have that truth be accessible to them when they need it most. And I believe that we’ll never know why in that very moment Bourdain decided to do what he did, only he knew that. But I do believe that in that moment, he wasn’t able to access a truth that changed so many of our lives through him because he made it accessible to us.