(CNN) — In the last episode of “Parts Unknown” completed before Anthony Bourdain’s death, the Emmy-award winning TV travel host and best-selling author leaves us with these haunting and poignant words in Kenya: “Who gets to tell the stories?”
“The answer in this case, for better or for worse, is I do — at least this time. I do my best. I look. I listen. But in the end, I know it’s my story, not Kamau’s [reference to comedian and television host W. Kamau Bell, Bourdain’s sidekick in the episode], not Kenya’s, or Kenyans’. Those stories are yet to be heard.”
There’s no doubt Bourdain’s profound influence on how we view the world as travelers, as storytellers, as both outsiders and insiders, as consumers — of food, culture and media — will stir thoughtful discourse for years to come.
But if you’re a student at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana, you’ll have a chance to discuss all things Bourdain — and earn college credit for it — as early as 2019.
Professor Todd Kennedy, the head of the university’s film studies program, is teaching a new class entitled “Anthony Bourdain and His Influencers” next spring.
Conception of the course
Kennedy, who holds a Ph.D. in 20th century American literature and film, spoke to me recently about how deeply shaken he was by news of Bourdain’s death: “I was in Spain at the time with my wife, and I found myself bawling for days and days afterwards. … I started thinking about the way Bourdain encapsulates so much of everything we do in film studies, in English studies, in cultural studies and what I do for a living.”
Kennedy admits that while he enjoyed Bourdain’s TV programs, he didn’t consider himself a super-fan. “While I was a fan of his show, I don’t think like one. Maybe it’s the academic in me, but I’m always removed from things. I wrote a master’s thesis on Bob Dylan, but I’m not invested in Bob Dylan as a person,” says Kennedy.
But Kennedy couldn’t remove himself from Anthony Bourdain, especially how much the chef-turned-host elevated television — creating shows that were some of the most filmic in the history of the small screen. “A lot of times we don’t think of television as film — even I can sometimes be a little harsh on it — but what Bourdain did visually was some of the most innovative I’ve ever seen on TV.”
Kennedy recalls reading this 2010 interview in which Bourdain shares his goal of trying to make something novel and taking risks with his show. The Travel Channel’s “No Reservations,” which preceded “Parts Unknown,” was being filmed at the time.
In the 2010 CityBeat interview, Bourdain offered some insight into his method: “Often before we even pick what country we’re going to we start with a movie that we love and start thinking about where we might apply that look.”
“In the best-case scenario, we’re trying to make a different independent film every week,” Bourdain said.
“I started realizing in almost every episode there’s these obscure visual allusions to films that probably only he and his cinematographers were likely to know,” says Kennedy.
Of course, the cinematic “No Reservations” Rome episode immediately comes to mind. Shot entirely in black and white, it evokes Italian film icons Fellini, Bertolucci and Antonioni. But Kennedy started spotting more and more film allusions in every episode, some that were not always obvious.
Anthony Bourdain in Tokyo, an episode in Season 2 ‘Parts Unknown.’
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In the “Parts Unknown” San Sebastian episode, Kennedy sees nods to Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem. Most of the professor’s research has been focused on feminist film theory including the work of director Sofia Coppola, so he quickly realized the “Parts Unknown” Tokyo episode paid homage to “Lost in Translation.”
The Literary Aspect
Kennedy also sees a number of literary influences in Bourdain’s storytelling. Jim Harrison’s novella “Legends of the Fall” is on the syllabus. A hero of Bourdain’s, the celebrated author and poet’s work was anchored in the wide open spaces of America’s great outdoors, and his novella inspired the iconic 1994 film.
Tony spoke with author, Jim Harrison after a drive through Paradise Valley, Montana.
Fans may recall Bourdain meeting Harrison in the “No Reservations” Big Sky Country episode; later, in season seven of “Parts Unknown,” Bourdain returns to Montana to bask in his literary hero’s light one last time, as Harrison passed away shortly after this episode was filmed.
As for other literary influences of Bourdain’s, Kennedy is also particularly excited to discuss the brash voice of New York’s underground, Lydia Lunch, the no wave moment singer/poet/spoken word performer who will be featured in the final episode: the Lower East Side.
Students will start the course where it all began, by reading “Kitchen Confidential,” Bourdain’s tell-all memoir that shook up the culinary industry and catapulted the truth-serving chef into fame. The syllabus will also include “Between Meals: An Appetite of Paris” by A.J. Liebling, one of Bourdain’s biggest inspirations for food writing.
Each week, the class will focus on an episode from one of Bourdain’s shows —”A Cook’s Tour,” “No Reservations” and “Parts Unknown,” — as well as the novel and/or film that Kennedy believes influenced Bourdain.
Anthony Bourdain in Hanoi.
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For instance, the course will take a close look at one of Bourdain’s favorite places, Vietnam. Kennedy will encourage students to consider what influenced Bourdain’s exploration of the country. Ancillary material will include “Apocalypse Now” and Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American,” both of which inspired Bourdain while he was filming in Vietnam. Other readings on Vietnam will be assigned; watching the actual episode comes at the end.
“By the end of the week, we’ll be debating Vietnam through the lens of how Anthony Bourdain saw it, but also with an awareness of what influenced Bourdain’s perspectives of Vietnam before he ever got there,” explains Kennedy.
Anthony Bourdain gets to know the locals in Hanoi.
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While Bourdain was committed to immersing himself in the local culture, he was also quite conscious of the baggage he brought to each destination.
“Bourdain was aware of the perspective he was coming at as a Westerner from North America, the films he had seen, and the films’ influence on how he sees what he sees. He was both trying to immerse himself locally, while making you hyper-aware of what bias and outside perspectives he was bringing to the show,” surmises Kennedy.
Like the man himself, Bourdain’s work seems to have endless layers to unpack.
What would Bourdain think?
“I’m excited about it, in some ways more than any other class I’ve taught, but for a class that seems so pop culture and shallow, it’s really proving to be the exact opposite: It’s the most layered of an onion of a class I’ve ever taught, with some of the most complicated themes,” Kennedy says.
It’s not a prerequisite for students to be familiar with Anthony Bourdain or a fan of his work. In fact, Kennedy hopes some students who register for the course will have barely heard of Bourdain because he feels studying the chef and TV personality with a blank canvas could offer a more nuanced perspective.
But what would Bourdain — a man who often seemed uneasy with his own celebrity and influence — think of Kennedy’s class?
Professor Kennedy thinks Bourdain would ultimately approve.
“I think he would want to make fun of it,” considers Kennedy. “I think he’d be a little intimidated by it, in a way that would probably make him a little self-aware. But I think he’d appreciate it at the same time. He liked ideas — I think he would like the idea even if he was uncomfortable with the attention.”