Like many grizzled academics, Professor Todd Kennedy doesn’t get too caught up in celebrity. But when Anthony Bourdain died, something stuck with him, something he didn’t expect — and he’s turned that something into a literature and film-studies course at Nicholls State University in Louisiana.
Creating the Course
After Bourdain’s death, “I was shaken in a way I think a lot of people were, but it was really intense for me, and it was intense for days and days, which surprised me,” Kennedy says. “I’m not somebody who really cares about—not just celebrities, but really anybody. I wrote a master’s thesis on Bob Dylan but I’m not really invested in Bob Dylan as a person.”
And so, his academic mind was forced to examine why this particular thorn stuck with him so long. “I started thinking about what it was about Bourdain that had me so distraught, and the more I looked at what he did and created, I realized how complex it all was,” he says. Kennedy studied Parts Unknownand No Reservations and felt Bourdain was creating more than just a travel show. He caught subtle references to obscure films “only cinematographers or film historians would catch.”
“I don’t think you can truly appreciate how complex Bourdain was without knowing the text he’s drawing from,” Kennedy says. As such, like other academics drawn to great works of art, Kennedy decided to explore Bourdain’s show in class.
“In the academic world, in literary studies and film studies and cultural studies, we like to talk about how all these different aspects of culture speak to each other: music, food, travel, literature, film, pop culture,” Kennedy explains. “Anthony Bourdain combines and layers all of them to complete an entire worldview wherever he goes.”
This isn’t a totally new discovery, Kennedy says. “[Bourdain] talked about this quite a bit in a general way — there’s a specific interview where he says that he often chose locations for the show by talking about a filmmaker, a music group or a cinematographer that he’d been obsessed with. They then figured out a location based on that.” Still, the professor wants to dig deeper — what more could you discover about Bourdain when you know the original text that’s influencing him?
Exploring Bourdain’s Complexity
One of Kennedy’s first lessons will focus on the Basque Country episode of Parts Unknown. For this episode, Kennedy says Bourdain “would watch a whole bunch of Julio Medem films and then fill the episode with a bunch of references to Julio Medem. So on one hand it’s a little joke to see if any viewers will catch it, which hardly anybody does, especially when he uses more obscure filmmakers.”
On the other hand, Kennedy continues, it’s “almost an academic treatise” on Bourdain reflecting on the films, literature and media that shapes him. “His last words in the recently released premiere of Parts Unknown were, ‘I do my best. I look. I listen. But in the end, I know it’s my story. Not Kamau’s, not Kenya’s, or Kenyans. Those stories are yet to be heard.’
“So as much as he’s about listening not telling, understanding a culture [but] not imposing on it, he’s still very aware of how his view of the location is a product of the films he’s seen, the books he’s read, what he’s been exposed to through media before he gets there,” Kennedy says.
In his course, Kennedy explains, students will be “having conversations between the original text, Anthony Bourdain and the location.” And through these conversations, the English and film studies professor wants his students to see how “all these different things about culture are a conversation.”
Bourdain’s Legacy in Academia and Media
Beyond the complex cultural conversation Bourdain wove through his writing and television series, Kennedy would like his students to learn something from the man himself. “The real-world thing, which isn’t necessarily why I’m teaching the class but is probably more connected than my academic brain likes to think, is to accept things at their own level, to want things to be good for what they’re good for, to not impose your own taste on them,” Kennedy says. Specifically: “Don’t go to Jamaica and stay in the resort and eat jerk chicken, go eat jerk pork on the side of the street. Look for what’s important about where [you’re] at and [dive] into the lives of locals of where you’re at.”
He believes that’s what best represents Bourdain. “There’s always the cliche,” he says. “The whole ‘don’t stay in a resort,’ ‘don’t take a cruise ship.’ He really wanted you to go somewhere out of your comfort zone. Bourdain approached food and culture in general how he approached everything: Look at everything in its own terms.”
As far as Bourdain’s legacy, the professor says he’s typically cynical about the superficial way we consume media these days. “We tend to watch very old things that we’re told by the academy are important. People don’t listen to Dylan now because they like Dylan. They listen to Dylan because the musicians they listen to tell them that Dylan is important.”
But with Bourdain, things are different. Kennedy believes the complexity of Bourdain’s work, paired with his open and honest approach to both himself and his work, is what will fuel future generations to discover him. “There’s so much media out there anymore, that’s it’s endless and exhausting and overwhelming. If someone’s not in the news or commercials, there’s really not a reason to pay attention,” Kennedy says. “I’m worried [Bourdain will] fade again as generations get older, but I hope that my class can help fight against that by getting him more into the canon.”
One thing that gives him hope is the way he sees young people react to him. “I teach him in my English proposition class. And [students] tend to respond to him because he makes a clear argument. He makes a clear argument that’s removed from all the pretentious BS that’s tied into so much food and travel.”
And that’s the connection he finds between Bourdain and Dylan. Neither were drawn to celebrity: “They bristled at the idea that people would be so invested in them as a person. They were more interested in their work, and used their celebrity to have the freedom they needed to create the work they wanted to create.”