“Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain”
Director: Morgan Neville
Anthony Bourdain was the most unlikely of celebrities: a recovering drug addict and chef who wrote frankly about his experiences in the galley, publishing them in a memoir called “Kitchen Confidential.” The book was a sensation, catapulting Bourdain to stardom. Soon he was able to stop cooking entirely and focus on traveling the world to experience the foods of other cultures.
Somewhat surprisingly, Bourdain was ill-traveled prior to stardom, but by the time of his death in 2018, by suicide, at age 61, he had, by some estimates, circled the globe no fewer than twenty-six times.
Morgan Neville’s film is less eulogy and more celebration of this truly singular man. Neville’s story commences on the eve of the millennium, with Bourdain uncomfortably settling into this newfound celebrity. He is clearly nervous in front of the cameras, and is seen chain-smoking wherever he is followed in New York, be it in the kitchen at Le Halles or in his apartment. Such timidity becomes a theme throughout the film, particularly when we meet the married producers Lydia Tenaglia and Christopher Collins, who thought, hey, maybe we should take this chef on the road and watch him eat.
Bourdain would spend the final two decades of his life on such trips, dining in exotic locales and interacting with the peoples of whichever country he landed in. The dinner table, he believed, was the peaceful common ground that could cut through petty divisions. We get the sense that he truly believed this, both in theory and practice—which is why it’s so heartbreaking in a scene in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, following the devastating 2010 earthquake, when he and the crew offer leftovers to starving kids, who rather than stay in line push and shove and beat on smaller children to get to the front of the line.
Neville interviews Bourdain’s producers, film crew and his friends, most notably his longtime chums David Chang and the chef Éric Ripert. Chang tells the camera of his own addictive personality, which likely cemented his bond with Bourdain as a fellow traveler. And Ripert, as is well known, found his friend hanged in a hotel room in Strasbourg, France. Ripert is open and garrulous, smiling as he recollects Bourdain, though he wisely stays mute on the suicide and the reasons for it. For whatever explanation he conjured, none would ever satisfy.
Neville’s documentary makes clear that Bourdain’s self-destruction was all but inevitable. In outtakes from his various programs he is heard jesting about methods of suicide, and we can’t help but be grateful he stayed with us as long as he did, living always on the knife’s edge as he battled his demons.
Speculation is pointless, but the implosion of his relationship with Italian actress Asia Argento was perhaps the last straw. Argento was an early #MeToo warrior who claims Harvey Weinstein raped her at Cannes in 1997. Bourdain was ever at her side, and said that the restaurant industry was long overdue for a reckoning of its own. But then Argento herself was #MeToo’d when an actor accused her of sexual assault when he was still underage.
The cognitive dissonance for Bourdain must have been frightening—and existential.
Whether we continue to wonder at the reasons behind his death, Neville’s delightful film shows us a man who was a seeker, a wanderer, a writer of profound abilities, and a lover of food and whatever else he could get his hands on. That a camera was there to document his globe-trotting is a gift to those of us left behind.
Like many great artists, Bourdain was never happy unless he was unhappy. And just like many solitary geniuses, the only true home he ever knew was on the road, staring into silent nature.
There has never been anyone like Bourdain before, and we shall never see his like again.
“The First Step”
Director: Brandon Kramer
Van Jones continues to amaze me. The lawyer and CNN commentator has an emotional quotient (EQ) that is off the charts. He can see the good in anyone, work easily across the aisle with conservatives, and he takes on causes that, to any outsider, seem like losers. Think of his CNN “The Redemption Project,” in which he set up conversations between jailed offenders and those whose loved ones they had taken.
On that same score, director Brandon Kramer spent time with Jones during parts of the Trump administration, in which Jones vocally preached the cause of prison reform. He needed allies, not just on the left but on the right, if his pet project had any chance of success in Congress.
He found the most unlikely partner in Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and the go-to man to fix, well, everything. But Kushner also knows something of the prison scene, what with his own father having been sent to the joint for financial malfeasance. He agrees to work with Jones to pitch the idea to the president.
Immediately Jones is labeled a traitor—and far worse—by many of his fellow liberals, including those in the Black community. Kramer watches as Jones reads the Twitter hatred, and yet the online vitriol seems to faze him as little as does its real-world variety.
The documentary’s most affecting gambit is to bring together two very different sectors of the community working against the drug epidemic. In South Central Los Angeles he befriends activists trying to head off the horrors of the illegal market. In West Virginia, Jones also works with a group whose members have been devastated by the opioid scourge. The two groups’ politics could not be more disparate, and yet Jones encourages them to see that their cause is one and the same. The Angelenos pay a visit to the depleted regions of West Virginia, and later those same folks from coal mining country come to L.A. It’s extraordinary to behold, and I kind of wish more time was spent on it, but this is a film about Jones, and so back to Washington we must go.
Through hustling and lobbying, Jones manages to build a coalition of senators and congressmen to back a bill, and Jones is there, smiling, as Trump signs the legislation—and then hands Jones the pen. For this he would take even more heat from those on his supposed side.
Van Jones is a fascinating man, extraordinarily intelligent and with empathy to spare. He so often reports on the news, but this time, he gets to be the story.
“The Neutral Ground”
Director: CJ Hunt
The biracial comedian CJ Hunt tries his best to find the humor in the South’s ongoing love affair with statues of Confederate figures in this fascinating documentary. Hunt starts off with a wry smile and an aw-shucks attitude as he attends a “camp” for Civil War reenactors, where he sits down with some members who decry any notion that the war was about slavery.
But then things get heated, especially as then-New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu decrees monuments to the Lost Cause in the city will be taken down. Not so fast, say protesters, many of them waving Confederate flags and screaming “white power.”
Hunt’s camera infiltrates the proceedings, and his lens is at its best when he simply watches events on both sides. He also attempts “Daily Show”-esque crash interviews with the monument defenders, but again, it’s hard to laugh in the face of such purposeful ignorance.
Among the documentary’s most fascinating pre-scenes is Hunt’s father, who says his son has yet to fully embrace his blackness. It’s a charming moment, but becomes all the more poignant as the conversations between Hunt and Hunt, Sr. continue as foreground to the battle over the statues.
Incredibly, Hunt also gets to Charlottesville, where things finally explode between right-wing extremists and antifa, and leading to the death of a young woman. It’s the first time Hunt says he is scared—and he cannot find the humor.
Throughout, Hunt undermines the myth of the Old South as benevolent to slaves, and he takes us through the post-war decades, when such propaganda was fed to Southern children, and in many places, still is.
Hunt has a good eye and is charming and funny when he can be, and observant and wry even when he can’t. May he continue making films.
“The Neutral Ground” will also be the opening film for the 34th season of PBS’s “POV” on July 5.
“Larry Flynt for President”
Director: Nadia Szold
(full disclosure: I worked for Larry Flynt Publications from 2006-2010)
In those oh-so-innocent days before a reality TV star became president, the muckraking porn publisher Larry Flynt gave it a go in 1984, in which the provocateur sought to unseat one Ronald Reagan from the Oval Office. History records that Reagan won 49 states in his 1984 reelection, so at the outset, we already know things won’t end well for Flynt in this quixotic endeavor. But as we watch archive footage in “Larry Flynt for President,” we can’t help but get the feeling that winning was beside the point (in this way, he was perhaps no different than the eventual winner of the 2016 election). Director Nadia Szold’s film tapes together archive footage, putting us in the passenger seat as Flynt infamously shows up to court in a diaper, gets tossed in the slammer for contempt and other charges, and loses his ability to walk after being gunned down on the steps of a Georgia courthouse—with the legend being certain Southerners were incensed Flynt dared show interracial couplings in his magazine.
The few contemporary interviews include the columnist Robert Scheer, who wrote for Hustler. But most of the action is in the past, with less emphasis on our modern cultural warriors’ take on the situation.
The modern-day Flynt appears only fleetinginly just before the end credits. It would have been instructive to get his 2020 take on his eighties shenanigans, but if there is such footage, Szold doesn’t include it. And as Flynt passed away in February, the opportunity is now lost.
“Reflection: A Walk With Water”
Director: Emmett Brennan
We’re running out of water—especially California. A group of eco-warriors decides to hike from the Owens Valley, source of much of L.A.’s water supply, down to the City of Angels itself, and as they walk, we are treated to a history of the water wars, culminating in William Mulholland opening up the spigot that would eventually drain Owens Lake and make Los Angeles one of the most sprawling cities on earth.
Emmett Brennan’s dreamlike documentary follows the hikers and also speaks to experts, who discuss the pre-Colombian history of the Golden State, including those Natives who lived in the Owens Valley millennia before the White man came—and still do. The documentary isn’t especially illuminating per se, but Brennan’s camera captures the beauty of the Sierra Nevada and other natural features that made the Owens Valley so perfect for a natural lake, and a prime target for those who were looking to usher in progress.
“The Lost Leonardo”
Director: Andreas Koefoed
It was discovered in a warehouse in New Orleans, and would eventually be sold at auction for over $400 million. The only issue was whether or not the painting, Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) was a true-blue Leonard da Vinci or simply a close imitation by one of his acolytes (but perhaps this is the wrong way to commence such an inquiry at a time when NFTs fetch millions of dollars). Director Andreas Koefoed sets up “The Lost Leonardo” as a mystery, not only with the authenticity of the painting itself (experts examine the canvas both with a scholarly mind and a magnifying glass) but of where it should eventually belong, and for how much?
The answers to both questions are shocking. Koefoed takes us along on a real-life thriller that gets ever more intriguing as it goes—and, as I couldn’t help but ponder as the film rolled along how did I not know about this, and how could it possibly have unfolded as it did?
“The Last Out”
Directors: Sami Khan and Michael Gassert
The U.S. embargo of Cuba is a half-century old, and thus Americans must go to some lengths to attain Cuban assets. This includes baseball players, whose dreams of making it to “the Show” must of necessity follow a rather circuitous route. Sami Khan and Michael Gassert show us the difficult lives of three such Cuban players, who move to Costa Rica in the hopes of attracting scouts and being signed to big league contracts with MLB.
We meet Happy Oliveros, Carlos O. González and Victor Baró, all from poor families, love baseball, and want to get to the majors in the United States as much to help their families as to play the game they love. Each of these young men are intriguing, but so is their coach, Gus, a Cuban-American who we learn spent time in jail for taking cash to facilitate Cubans’ passage to the United States. Gus’s time in the can is over, and though his professional reputation is in tatters, he can still sniff out talent and is a father figure to his candidates.
Scouts indeed come from MLB, and Gus lobbies hard for his students. Baró has a potential offer from the Houston Astros, but things don’t look as good for Oliveros and González. At least one of the young men banks on a perilous journey north to the United States—paying coyotes and evading authorities along the way.
The end offers little in the way of resolution (spoiler: none makes the big leagues), but nonetheless, they continue to press on in one way or another, even as Gus welcomes a brand-new crop of hopefuls.
Director: Ryan White
Ryan White made the outstanding “Assassins,” a full-length that debuted last year at Sundance. He’s back with a short doc called “Coded,” which explores the artistic world of J.C. Leyendecker, a prominent artist of the late-19th and early-20th centuries whose works were much beloved by newspaper publishers. That he was gay and had a long-term partner was of course a secret, so “Coded” shows how Leyendecker was able to express his desires in art when not doing so in person and in a way that gay audiences of the day could decode.
Talking heads speak about Leyendecker’s art and life, but what really brings “Coded” to life are animated sequences showing the day-to-day happenings of Leyendecker and his companion of fifty years, Charles Beach. The animations add a tenderness to a story that had to exist, thanks to the cultural mores of the day, largely in the shadows.
“No Longer Suitable for Use”
Director: Julian Joslin
This dramatic short from Julian Joslin, executive-produced by Sam Rockwell, follows an Egyptian man named Samir (Laith Nakli), who despite living illegally in the United States, has been an informant for the FBI. As the film opens, Samir’s time may be running out, and the feds threaten to deport him. The feds give him an offer he should refuse, but what can he do? This is only the beginning of a gambit that will test Samir’s values and his commitments.
Writer-director Julian Joslin used to be on the inside of terrorism-related cases in New York, and his knowledge of the gray areas of prosecution and witness protection is manifest in this twenty-minute film, which is taut and intriguging, and, even unexpectedly funny, at times.