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Inspiring and Dangerous


Anthony Bourdain as Filmmaker

Although Anthony Bourdain’s impact on culinary culture was large, reducing him to a food or travel celebrity diminishes his legacy.

Anarchist at heart: Anthony Bourdain.

As the sixth anniversary of his death approaches, a reevaluation of his achievement is in order.

First and foremost, we need to recognise Bourdain as a storyteller, one who wrote compelling prose but was even more accomplished as a maker of documentary films.

With the help of an excellent production team and occasional guest directors, he explored the category of taste from a wide variety of angles, popularising an approach to the subject that consistently refused to disentangle aesthetics from politics.

Although this approach to taste can be discerned in all of his non-fiction, it makes its presence felt with particular force when Bourdain visited places with a history of authoritarian leadership.

He tackled the legacy of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe with extraordinary verve, typically with his friend Zamir Gotta as a guide.

The episodes he shot in the region for his television series A Cook’s Tour, No Reservations and Parts Unknown therefore provide an excellent point of entry for reflections on the ideological dimension of his work, underscoring both the insights made possible by his anarcho-libertarian sensibility and its blind spots.

For the Russia episode of A Cook’s Tour, filmed shortly after the turn of the millennium, Bourdain began by revisiting a series of Cold War tropes, communicating his excitement at being able to experience personally a land that he had grown up thinking of as an impossibly remote other.

When he visited Ukraine for No Reservations a decade later, Anthony Bourdain pondered that new country’s troubled relationship with Russia.

Even though most of the population sought to assert an autonomous political and cultural identity, he discerned a surprising nostalgia for the former Soviet Union in the public commemoration of wartime suffering.

By that time, with Vladimir Putin firmly established as Russia’s leader for the foreseeable future, the fragility of Ukrainian independence was plain to see.

Instead of sidestepping the subject, Bourdain spent much of the episode touring the Crimea with his friend Zamir, who had family ties there.

The segment showcased a decommissioned Soviet naval complex on the Black Sea and noted its strategic importance, making it abundantly clear why Russia would want to reclaim dominion over the region.

While food and drink – including a great deal of vodka – were featured prominently in both these episodes, they were unusually political by the standards of A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, suggesting that Bourdain was keen to tell stories that transcended the conventions of culinary tourism.

Bourdain’s third and final show, Parts Unknown, immediately realised the promise of those episodes set in the former USSR.

Instead of including political ruminations as bonus content, he made them an integral part of the voiceover narration he wrote to accompany footage shot on location.

This retrospective frame would highlight noteworthy moments from his conversations with locals, drawing attention to subtexts that casual viewers might miss.

By the time Bourdain returned to Russia for the third season of Parts Unknown, for an episode that would air in the spring of 2014, this new approach had become second nature.

Even so, his trip to Moscow and Putin’s hometown of St. Petersberg was shockingly hardcore.

The episode begins with Zamir and Bourdain traversing a pastoral landscape on a sleigh drawn by horses, briefly conjuring the fantasy of a Russia untainted by the horrors of the twentieth century.

But this idyll is short-lived, giving way to a montage of clips in which Putin plays the strongman – riding a horse, holding a gun, petting a leopard cub – as Bourdain’s voiceover underscores his perverse appeal, culminating in a comparison with former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Although these words were recorded after Bourdain safely returned to the United States, the following scene demonstrates that he wasn’t afraid to criticise Putin while in Russia.

Bourdain is sitting alone in the lobby of the iconic Hotel Metropol, nursing a beer. Zamir joins him there, and they immediately switch to drinking vodka, recalling their drunken escapades during previous collaborations.

“What do you think?” asks Zamir once the two men are sufficiently lubricated. “What is the perception of Mr. Putin these days, after fourteen years in power?”

Bourdain raises an eyebrow. “My perception?” He shakes his head incredulously. “Do you really want to hear it?”

Because we have already heard his acerbic characterisation during the montage of clips in the opening, viewers are primed to perceive the danger in this situation. But Zamir ploughs ahead, seemingly unconcerned.

“A former mid-level manager in a large corporation,” Bourdain begins, nodding. “Short. I think that’s very important. Short.”

We cut to Zamir coughing twice into his hand, eyes downcast.

“Who has found himself master of the universe,” Bourdain goes on, tightening a toothless half-smile. “And, like a lot of short people, if you piss him off, bad things happen to you. He likes to take his shirt off a lot.”

We see Zamir lean back, his mouth opening in surprise, then putting a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

“He strikes me as a businessman,” Bourdain adds, looking at Zamir.  “A businessman with an ego. OK, he’s like Donald Trump.” Then he turns to look directly into the camera. “But shorter.”

Until this point, we have seen close-ups of both men, medium shots in which we see them and their table, and establishing shots that show us where they are sitting, the Metropol’s bar straight behind them.

Even when servers come over to bring them food and drink, the production crew’s presence goes unremarked.

But when Bourdain looks into the camera, he is looking at us, temporarily breaking the fourth wall to demonstrate that our spectatorial privilege is only granted by the grace of the filmmakers who were there first.

Our watching is being watched, as is only fitting for an episode shot in an authoritarian surveillance state.

The reference to Donald Trump is particularly telling. A frequent target of Anthony Bourdain’s ire, even before he made his political aspirations known, his name functions like a mirror, reminding us that men like Vladimir Putin can be found everywhere.

Because of the difficult circumstances surrounding its production, the Russia episode of Parts Unknown provides a particularly strong foretaste of a trend dominating its final seasons. Although there were always plentiful scenes of Bourdain dining with his interlocutors, communicating enthusiasm for what he was eating became a struggle.

Whereas food had been the raison d’etre of A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations, the “text” he was interpreting for us, his move to CNN for Parts Unknown already signalled an impulse to focus more on the contexts it could help illuminate.

At first, however, he still seemed to enjoy eating with others.

By the end, food had largely been reduced to a pretext. Even the hard partying that had been a feature of his public persona no longer held the same appeal.

Culinary culture had made Bourdain rich and famous, but not happy.

To his credit, he persevered through this loss of appetite long enough to produce some truly remarkable work. While turning his back on food celebrity might have made him less depressed, he never forgot that it had provided him with a unique opportunity.

 

Food may have become a pretext, but it was in the service of the texts he was driven to write, the means to a storyteller’s end.

Although Anthony Bourdain was too busy and impatient to spend time theorising his transformation, his practice as a filmmaker demonstrates how far ahead of his time he was.

He peered ruefully into a future where algorithms would exhaustively categorise taste preferences, compressing aesthetic experience like a high-end analogue recording ripped at a low bit rate.

Bourdain realised that this trend would impact culinary culture, and it already had been doing so during the era of social media, yet with one crucial difference.

Whatever the aesthetic qualities that inform food production, distribution, and consumption, it still retains its function as basic sustenance.

You can use AI to write, you can deep-fake a “documentary”, and you can automate the production of musical hits. But food still needs to nourish us above and beyond whatever cultural significance it holds.

That material basis suggests that food will play an increasingly prominent role in the culture of the near future.

Despite recognising that taste preferences were becoming less personal in the era of social media, Bourdain still did his best to explain his own.

He expressed strong opinions, courting controversy. But he wanted his audience to understand where they came from, rooting them in autobiographical detail.

The Parts Unknown episode on Budapest, which aired a little over a year after the one on Russia, begins with footage of the 1956 uprising secretly shot by the cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, famous for his work on McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Deer Hunter.

Later, we see Bourdain talking with Zsigmond in different locations in Hungary. Zsigmond describes a happy early childhood cut short by World War II and then the postwar Communist regime. He explains that his happiest time before emigrating to the United States were his years as an impoverished student in the state-run film school.

At one point, the two men walk into the same cinema Zsigmond frequented in his youth. Sitting in the middle of the empty theatre, they continue their conversation.

The cinematographer describes the impact of seeing Charlie Chaplin’s film The Great Dictator before the war.

We cut to a clip from it, then to a long shot of the empty theatre, the two men’s heads peeking out over their seats, as the famous shot of the dictator playing with a large balloon globe appears on the screen in front of them.

In his voiceover narration, Anthony Bourdain notes, “Some films, of course, resonated more than others. The power of the visual image intensified, maybe, by what was going on just outside that dark room. Films could be inspiring. They could also be dangerous.”

We then return to the conversation. “It was so magic to me,” Bourdain declares. “I mean, they still are. To go to a film, especially a dangerous one.” We see Szigmond turn towards him, smiling.

“When the subject matter and the content was different,” he continues. “And to see that and just, ‘Oh, my God! What do I do with my life now?’”

Although Bourdain was too modest to make the claim himself, his best work in No Reservations and, especially, Parts Unknown had this kind of impact on many viewers.

Even if they began watching the show in search of what Bourdain derisively called “food porn” or to indulge escapist fantasies, they came away with something far more important.

In retrospect, Bourdain’s statement that films could be both inspiring and dangerous feels like a mission statement.

While in Russia, he had talked with Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov. The same winter when he was shooting the Budapest episode, Nemtsov was assassinated near Red Square.

Other people Bourdain spoke with in episodes of Parts Unknown were punished afterwards, with their participation in the show surely playing a role in their persecution.

Even if Anthony Bourdain was aggressively ambivalent about his celebrity, he welcomed the opportunity to talk with his heroes in the film, music, and restaurant industries.

Although well-heeled gourmets sought his favour, it is abundantly clear that he preferred dining more simply, whether in humble neighbourhood eateries, on the street, or in private homes.

In his conversations with ordinary people, the sort whose primary claim to fame would forever be appearing on his show, Bourdain frequently expressed admiration for their hard work and entrepreneurial spirit.

Considering his unsparing criticism of totalitarian regimes, these scenes might be misinterpreted as a ringing endorsement of capitalism. But nothing could be further from the truth.

An anarchist at heart, Bourdain was deeply sceptical of all institutional structures, no matter how free the society in which they were found seemed to be.

He never forgot the difference between earning an honest living by the sweat of one’s brow and getting rich off someone else’s labour.

That’s why he worked so hard, driving himself to the point of exhaustion. And why he consistently acknowledged how his achievements, whether running a kitchen or presiding over a shoot, were dependent on the contributions of others.

The stories he told repeatedly showcased the best that human beings have to offer and savaged the greed and corruption that prevented them from achieving their full potential.

As we reflect on Anthony Bourdain’s legacy, now is the perfect time to experience those stories again, complementing the visceral impact of our first time watching his shows with newfound appreciation for the profound aesthetic accomplishment they represent.

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Photograph courtesy of Maribeth McEwan. Published under a Creative Commons license.