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Anthony Bourdain Was a Brilliant Filmmaker in Disguise

Bourdain's legacy was greater than anything on a typical food show — and it seemed like he was just getting started.

Anthony BourdainTurner Upfront Presentation, Arrivals, New York, USA - 17 May 2017

Anthony Bourdain

Stephen Lovekin/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

When I spoke to Anthony Bourdain on May 31, eight days before he committed suicide, I mostly wanted to talk about movies. While not everyone associated the food-show host with cinema, it informed every episode of CNN’s “No Reservations,” from the echoes of “Happy Together” in Buenos Aires to “City of Ghosts” in Thailand. He was a brilliant filmmaker in disguise.

Our conversation got granular. He shared references to revered and obscure filmmakers, recalled his youth experiences working through the Janus film library, and mused about a few new releases. It was a neat opportunity to explore the creative mindset behind a program that became more of a cultural investigation than a culinary one.

Food experts can assess how Bourdain brought a personable edge to highbrow cuisine, and pushed beyond fine-dining formulas to explore the value of food at every level of society. However, what defines his legacy may have more to do with his capacity to deconstruct the Western gaze. By sharing a meal, he could go anywhere in the world and make the people look just like us, and us like them. He was a hero we needed in divided times, when the specter of bigotry looms large and ugly, and perhaps our world was too good for him. I wish I had asked him if that was true.

When we spoke, he’d already completed several episodes of the current season, including an installment airing that Sunday set in Hong Kong that largely focused on the history and culture of the city, as well as the way he had learned to love it through the films of Wong Kar-wai. At 61, Bourdain was confident in the unique formula he’d honed across decades: the celebrity chef who was less interested in food than in the people consuming it. He explored different places as a means of opening up audiences to unfamiliar worlds. How many of us, prior to traveling to another country, have turned to Bourdain for guidance, and wind up imbibing histories and people we never expected to see?

Bourdain had more in common with ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch than any contemporary celebrity chef. Both men positioned their cameras around faces we often don’t see represented in mainstream media, then provided space for their subjects to drive the narrative.

The first episode of the current “No Reservations” season is an astonishing documentary investigation into the lives of working-class people in West Virginia. Bourdain positions himself as the clueless cosmopolitan in Trumpland — “the existential enemy” — only to find himself so welcomed in a community of coal miners and football lovers that he fits right in. Eating bear meat with several family men in a dank cave, he listens to their concerns for job security and pushes to contextualize it with a broader overview of the region.

A still from the West Virginia episode of “Parts Unknown”

Rather than constructing a bland plea for partisanship, Bourdain allows the men to simply exist within the specific parameters of their surroundings. It’s thrilling to watch this kind of level-headed inquiry because so little of it exists in popular culture, which tends to regard others as either exotic objects or clueless products of less-enlightened circumstances. Bourdain worked to rewire those binary instincts and embrace the potential for experiencing new people and conditions. That’s true movie magic.

Bourdain’s was a modern-day auteur, discovering his creativity in piecemeal. It felt like he was just getting started, and on the verge of a new chapter as a unique filmmaking talent. An industry colleague told me Bourdain had been asking around about the possibility of showcasing his work at major film festivals later this year. It should still happen. We may never know his exact ambitions with the moving image, but he left us with a body of work that begs for further exploration. Bourdain’s parting gift to the world is a jolting realization of how much we needed him, and the excuse to continue to scrutinize the achievements he has left us.

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