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Here's to Bourdain 6 min read

Here's to Bourdain

The power of a good meal and even better conversation, the mysteries of suicide, a history lesson about Emmett Till's murder, Leon Bridges, the Olympics and more.

By Cary Littlejohn
Here's to Bourdain Post image

The film world was talking of late about the new Anthony Bourdain documentary, Roadrunner, and then after a surprising admission from the film’s director, Morgan Neville, that he’d used artificial intelligence to recreate Bourdain’s voice posthumously, the wider world was talking about the film. About the ethical concerns surrounding it. Was it ghoulish? Did it matter? Was it out of bounds?

All valid questions, and it was fun to hear a film so hotly debated. I’d taken all of that in without having seen the movie, which I and a friend remedied yesterday. It’s Wyoming, so that feat took a bit of work, namely driving two hours to the theater to see it and two hours back home.

But in between those long drives down two-lane highways, my friend Jake and I went to a meal after the film ended. In the spirit of Bourdain, we decided that we should talk about the film and whatever else life threw at us over a great meal.

There’s been so much talk about the film and its ethics and its messaging about Bourdain’s final days, but I felt that meal, and our natural-seeming decision to have it after the screening, represented the true power of the film.

Bourdain’s life became defined by his travel, where he went to have the amazing adventures that became his TV show, but at their heart, they wouldn’t have worked that well if not for the conversations had as the meal was being eaten. It was a reminder of the power of shared time. It was a reminder of food as uniting force. It was the a reminder of the value of experiences, how an investment in an expensive meal with good company can rarely, if ever, be considered wasteful.

Like Bourdain (and in this instance, specifically because of him), we talked over fine food about the nature of death, the impact of suicide and mental health, the ethics of the filmmaking, and many happier, lighter conversations played out. We enjoyed all aspects of the meal: drinks, appetizers, main courses and desserts, like we assumed Tony would do on his show.

We’d each heard interviews with the film’s director where he mentioned a moment from the film that he considered pivotal and revealing and heartbreaking.

Tony is spending time with legendary punk-rocker Iggy Pop, a hero of Bourdain’s, and over a nice meal he asked him, “What just thrills the shit out of you?”

Pop said his answer was embarrassing, but simple: “Being loved and actually appreciating the people that are giving that to me.”

Jake and I both noticed the scene in the film. We noticed the utter sincerity of Pop when he said it, a man who who radiated truth, who’d seen all the world has to offer and figured out the secret to the whole thing is remarkably simple in the end.

But more than anything, we noticed Bourdain’s response. Or, better yet, his non-response. He nodded, a clearly intelligent many not stumped by the words themselves but seemingly unable to relate to them in the moment. Neville found that exchange heartbreaking. He found it resonant. Here was Bourdain’s hero telling him something that he desperately needed to hear, but it wasn’t landing. For whatever reason, Tony couldn’t process the world that way.

Through all the talk of the film and its methods, there would be this repeated line thrown about for all manner of topics: What would Tony think about X? What would he think about Y?

Some think he wouldn’t have minded the use of A.I. to recreate his voice and read his own writing. Others think he would have hated the artificiality of the whole thing. Who’s to say who’s right, but I like to think he would have appreciated the reaction my friend and I had to a story about his life.

Eat good food. Drink good drink. Tell good stories. Connect meaningfully. This was his message in life, if not death, and we raise a glass to that memory.

Ten Worth Your Time

  1. It seemed only fitting that, in the course of our meal together, Jake would recommend to me a story in The New Yorker that I’d somehow missed out on a few months ago. Bourdain’s story can’t help but be shaped by how it ended, which was by his own hands. The New Yorker, which published the very first of Bourdain’s stories that led to his first best-selling book, published a piece by D.T. Max about a small college in Missouri that was beset by one suicide after another, and each time, one young man turned up in close connection to all of them. It was a fitting recommendation, a great story, and it encapsulated the entire driving force behind this newsletter in the first place: to share thought-provoking stories. 

  2. The cover story in this month’s Harper’s is also about suicide, and more precisely, the study of suicide and whether it can ever be predicted. It’s a concept that doesn’t seem too far removed from sci-fi or fantasy storytelling, the idea of knowing one’s possible future in such a way is automatically alluring, but is it possible? What are they actually studying and measuring to arrive at such predictions? It’s an interesting read.

  3. Both of those first two recommendations are heavy reads, the first more so than the latter, but still, the topic is not a pleasant one. Nor is the topic of this recommendation, which might be one of the best magazine stories I’ve read in a long, long time. It comes from Wright Thompson, and more excitingly, it comes in the pages of The Atlantic, which is a pairing the journalism world hasn’t experienced before but can only hope we see it again. It tells a little-known story about the murder of Emmett Till, where it happened, and the importance of remembering when pitted against the impulse to forget. Wright is at his very best in this one.

  4. Jack Thomas, a longtime journalist at The Boston Globe, learned recently that he had inoperable cancer and was expected to live just months longer. He writes with grace and composure, looking back at a long life and the experiences that stood out to him throughout it.

  5. Writing about people is hard. Writing about famous people is often harder. If not issues of access, it’s often issues of “been there, done that.” They’re famous. They do lots of interviews. That’s just part of it. But neither of those challenges were present when Casey Gerald profiled R&B crooner Leon Bridges for Texas Monthly. Bridges is notoriously shy, and Gerald seemed to have plenty of time with his subject. The result is a stunning look at the life and career of a true talent, written by another true talent. 

  6. Ever wonder what goes into selecting new sports for inclusion in the Olympics? This overview from Vox explains the advent of skateboarding in this year’s Games and breakdancing in the summer Games.

  7. More on Janet Malcolm, this piece from n+1, because one can never have too much. 

  8. A sober-minded look from The Hedgehog Review of the notion of authority, and the nation’s need for an authoritative source of news. It has been, for as long as can be remembered, the New York Times, but the author agues that the paper’s response to the Trump presidency may have destroyed its claim to authority. 

  9. Ted Lasso is back for season two, and it picks up right where the first season left off. Not in the timeline of the show; some time has passed. But the writing, the characters, the sweet sentimentality, all of it picks up as if written in the same bursts of creative genius that gave us season one. It’s going to be fun following these characters weekly for the next three months, and The Ringer gets why in this piece by Miles Surrey.

  10. Come to this Vanity Fair piece for the revealing insight into this long-in-the-making project by Peter Jackson about the Beatles that was originally going be a film but now is going to be a limited series on Disney+, but stay for the video in which every place mentioned in a Beatles’ lyric is mapped out in a world tour of songwriting genius.

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