The Icarus myth has always had special appeal for me. It’s the story of the boy who, on man-crafted wings, flew too close to the sun and, when the sun melted the waxen wings, fell into the sea and drowned. A favorite poem is W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” which begins, “About suffering they were never wrong, / The old Masters …” and ends with a consideration of Pieter Breughel’s painting, “The Fall of Icarus,” which portrays the tragedy as an ignored event in the midst of a world that goes on with its daily tasks. The viewer has to look closely to find the legs of the boy as he plunges into the sea.
In my teaching years, I used the Auden text as an introduction to my Oral Interpretation performance class. I used it as an exercise in perspective and point of view. The poem reminded me, decades after Auden wrote it in 1938, of the brilliant late-summer morning of September 11, 2001, when television hosts on “Today” were casually chatting with tourists in Rockefeller Plaza — commenting on the weather — as the unthinkable was happening just four miles away. Coincidentally, I was — at the same time — reading Franzen’s The Corrections and getting what was probably my last true suntan on a Florida panhandle beach.
I gained a new perspective on Icarus recently as I watched Morgan Neville’s documentary, Roadrunner: A Film about Anthony Bourdain, at Birmingham’s Sidewalk Cinema – one of my favorite refuges from the Pandemic. Bourdain’s brother, Christopher, reads an anonymous tribute left at Anthony’s former Manhattan brasserie, Les Halles, after his death. It says, “Icarus didn’t fail. He was coming to the end of his triumph.”
Near the beginning of Roadrunner, we hear Bourdain’s voice: “Here’s a little preemptive truth telling; there’s no happy ending.” We knew that going in and perhaps that is the reason we are so eager to see the film. Three years after Bourdain – a writer who did not write a suicide note – took his own life, many are still searching for a reason; Neville’s film offers some possibilities to mull, but the depth of the grief of Bourdain’s friends, family, and colleagues is palpable.
Despite the promise of a bleak ending, much of the film is triumphant and fun, chronicling Bourdain’s rise from dishwasher to executive chef, from author to influential and charismatic television personality. It deals with his addictive personality, commitment issues, and demons as he becomes a globe-trotter, sampling the world’s foodways and using that pretext to explore the world’s issues and humanity. Neville focuses at times on the haunted look on Bourdain’s face in the middle of a shoot; we also see Bourdain’s suspicion of his rise to fame and his horrified face as he must admit that he’s about to appear on “Oprah.”
Raodrunner has faced some manufactured controversy over certain directorial choices and omissions, but documentary – like journalism – is always a subjective form at its core and each creator makes choices about how the “truth” will be presented. Bourdain certainly made those types of choices throughout his globe-trotting culinary documentary career, which the film and many of its interviewees assert was never really about food.
Neville’s documentary choices seem sound to me and his aesthetic choices are intriguing throughout. The insertion of footage from Coppola’s Apocalypse Now seems right, highlighting Bourdain’s obsessions with that movie and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – the source novel, when he is finally able to spend time in the Congo. When Bourdain and his film crew are stuck in Beirut in 2006 during the July War between Hezbollah and Israel, Bourdain questions the ethics of getting a tan at the hotel pool; he has little choice – the airport is closed and there is little to do but stay at the hotel, listening to the sounds of war all around. He seems both excited and guilty at his predicament.
Bourdain was always one to speak truth to power and, even at his most brash and surly, his authenticity and humanity come through. Roadrunner manages to capture another side of Bourdain – his vulnerability and joy in his family and relationships. When one interviewee seems to favorably compare the relationship of Bourdain and his first wife, Nancy Putkoski, to “Sid and Nancy,” I laughed out loud a little thinking, That’s a good thing? Maybe, for Bourdain, a little bit; Bourdain worked hard to maintain his punk persona throughout a career that was ultimately respectable and highly influential.
Roadrunner doesn’t sugarcoat; nor does it explain anything, really. But it reveals and listens and leaves the viewer with many things to ponder. Without giving too much of the ending away, it involves the mutilation of an image by a Bourdain friend and confidante. It’s the kind of moment Bourdain would have chosen.