City of Gold (Laura Gabbert, 2015)
Jonathan Gold prowls the streets of Los Angeles and environs in search of culinary delights, leaving a trail of well-chewed crumbs in his wake. As the food critic for The Los Angeles Times – and winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in criticism – he has a better excuse than most to feast his way through the city. What makes him special is not that he eats, nor even that he writes about what he eats, but that he makes it his mission to eat at, and write about, the kinds of places that mainstream food critics usually avoid: the food trucks and neighborhood diners, trendy and ordinary, alike. A favorable review from him can transform a restaurant’s (or truck’s) fortunes. Los Angeles really is the “City of Gold,” in other words.
Director Laura Gabbert (No Impact Man: The Documentary) has crafted a compelling documentary portrait of a man whose work over the past 20 years and more has truly made a difference to those around him. A man devoted to the art of good writing – trained as a cellist, he started out as a music critic – Gold makes a convincing case for the value that thoughtful criticism brings to its subject. Indeed, especially as it concerns food, he claims that it is the very act of dissecting cuisine through words that elevates it to the status of an art form; otherwise, it’s just nourishment. Given that Gold’s column, read by both celebrities and working stiffs, has the power to draw a crowd to a heretofore unknown café, it is abundantly clear how many folks are hungry for this intersection of food and art. Feed me, for sure, but do so with style.
But style need not mean pretension, or even expense. In the course of the film, we visit many a taco truck (fairly ubiquitous in Los Angeles, as in much of the American Southwest), as well as a hot-dog truck and a fair amount of Korean places in strip malls. Gold has a real yen for Korean food (which I share), and for finding gems in malls (also ubiquitous in Los Angeles). And that’s the secret of his charm and his success. He does the work for the masses, scouring the city for hidden treasures in unlikely places. As one might expect from someone who spends his days eating, Gold is now a fairly heavy man – we see his transformation from slender youth to middle-aged thickness through archival photos – but an extremely happy one, married to a charming woman (an editor at The Los Angeles Times), who remains his best friend, and with two kids who clearly adore him.
If there is one (minor) negative in Gold’s life, it is his ongoing writer’s block. True, he publishes many thousands of words a week, but is a chronic procrastinator with an inability to get started. We see many shots of him not doing what he is supposed to be doing, interspersed with interviews with his various editors who praise the quality of his writing while lamenting how hard it is to get it on time. I am sure there are many writers out there, perhaps this one, included, who can relate.
The director’s own peppy style is a nice complement to Gold’s ambling ways, though I do wish that she were less prone to dividing the film into so many short scenes where music drives the action, creating a plethora of episodic divides where fewer would perhaps serve the story better. Given, however, that she had no traditional narrative arc to work with – there is no competition or tragedy or any other major set of stakes at risk – Gabbert does a fine job setting up the delivery of information in an engaging way. By the end, we have learned not only about the life of one fascinating individual, but also about how cultivating – and appreciating – an aesthetic approach to everyday activities like eating can lend meaning to our existence. After all, as Gold mentions, what makes us human is the fact that we cook our food. By all means, then, go and watch this celebration of the human animal.