City of Gold
2016, R, 96 min. Directed by Laura Gabbert.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., April 15, 2016
Food is culture: a form of art, as well as a reflection of – and insight into – the people who make it. Los Angeles Times writer Jonathan Gold may have won the Pulitzer Prize for his restaurant reviews, but you could argue those pieces could just as reasonably be called arts criticism, or cultural reportage. What is inarguable: He makes a fascinating subject for Laura Gabbert’s documentary lens.
One of the talking heads in City of Gold makes the case for Gold’s expertise in another field: cartography. A classically trained cellist who morphed into a music critic (he was in the studio when Dr. Dre recorded The Chronic), Gold turned food critic in the Nineties and wrote a seminal piece – “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard,” for the alternative L.A. Weekly in 1998 – about eating his way down one very long block of largely working-class, ethnic, and family-owned businesses. Sure, Gold reviews the chi-chi restaurants, too, but the film takes pains to frame him in his natural habitat: a gas-guzzling truck, trolling the streets on the hunt for strip-mall goldmines and food-truck treasures, in neighborhoods a Michelin critic would never tread. Apologies to the spiral-bound Thomas Guide shoved under every Angeleno’s passenger seat: Gold’s stomach-compassed atlas to the city may very well be the more essential map.
City of Gold pursues a lot of paths of inquiry in a relatively brief running time, which means we get a sampler, not full meals, which is fine. It’s a fun watch, and familiarity with Los Angeles isn’t required to get a kick out of these toe-dips into Koreatown and Tehrangeles and all the other micro-communities that make the city a macro-paradise for eaters. We also get glimpses of Gold as a writer – the film opens with him thrumming his fingers at the dining room table, staring down a blank screen, deadline looming – and a teasing talk-back later when the camera catches his editor rubbing her temples. (Like, rubbing her temples hard.) I suspect every journalist enjoys seeing how the sausage gets made at other factories; I would have liked more time spent on the nuts and bolts of his job. (There’s a priceless moment when he discusses his attempts at anonymity, using throwaway phones to make restaurant reservations – “the fat man’s version of The Bourne Identity,” he calls it. He’s a funny dude.) But the film’s final shots of Gold in his truck, negotiating Los Angeles traffic at sunset – “magic hour,” in La La Land’s dreamy lingo – drive home the film’s raison d’être: as an ode to the city, and to its most lyrical chronicler.