City of Gold

City of Gold, a documentary by Laura Gabbert, delves into the sprawling Los Angeles metropolis, segmented by the different restaurants and the various cultures that create it, all mapped out by Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist. The film plays like a love story to Los Angeles from one of its most loyal aficionados, Mr. Gold, but is also a clear labor of love from L.A.-transplant Gabbert.

Thankfully, the film does not try to idealize L.A. or capture a Hollywood-ized, glammed-out version of L.A. as most big-budget films would (Gabbert says that an influence on the film is Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself). The bulk of the film takes place in often-marginalized corners of L.A., such as San Gabriel Valley, Little Ethiopia, Crenshaw, Koreatown, and Boyle Heights. Gabbert follows Gold, who follows his taste buds to wherever the food is good.

His only method of transport is a beat-up truck – Gold’s Rocinante – in which the film also spends a good amount of time. The camerawork often shifts from shots inside restaurants to shots of looking out at these mostly impoverished neighborhoods through the window of his car.

Only the shots inside Gold’s house or where he’s with his kids are warm, lovely, and almost idyllic. Everything else is shown exactly as it is on a daily basis and with no fanfare – people walking to the bus, carrying groceries, stopping at their local hot dog stand or taco truck – not beautiful, but honest.

As we get deeper into the film, we get to know Gold more – how he obsessively researches what he writes about; how he is always reading (we are shown his home staircase stacked with piles and piles of books) and eating and talking; his love of tacos; and the life of a once-anonymous food critique.  He’s interesting, so smart and articulate, and willing to try anything.

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Jonathan Gold is the voice of the L.A. food scene and throughout the film excerpts to even full articles of his are read aloud as images of L.A. life flash across the screen. His words are powerful, as is his influence on the L.A. restaurant food scene.  These moments, where Gold’s words speak to the audience in a calming, monotonous hum, are where City of Gold really shines.

There were moments when the film dragged – and unfortunately, it was towards the latter half of the film where more than once I hoped we had reached the end. It could have been shorter without sacrificing any of the same tenderness towards the protagonist and Los Angeles.

Gabbert has her cinematographers (Goro Toshima and Jerry Henry) follow Gold around for most of the film, interspersing his monologues with interviews of people who know him, work with him, are in the industry (other famous food critics and restaurateurs) or were affected by his writing. It can be heartwarming when speaking to restaurant owners who adore his love of their food, but can feel stilted when it’s in a work setting.

The music in City of Gold really complements the tone and feeling of the film. It was fun to realize that what seemed to be background music is actually diegetic.  The soundtrack showcased different cultures’ music and allowed you to enter into a mental space while being taken somewhere else visually. Gabbert does a lot to show contrasts and juxtapositions in Los Angeles and in City of Gold, and the music was a perfect background for this.

 City of Gold does not play up the ever-popular gratuitous and done-up food images that would fill up a foodie’s Instagram feed; again, it’s more real than that. We see plates come out, but as they would at any restaurant. There are some prettily plated entrées, but the food that comes out isn’t the main focus here. This film is not really about food, it’s about Gold’s direct effect on Los Angeles and the diverse nature of the city that allows Gold’s criticism to thrive.

It’s easy to see the love and care that was put into City of Gold and the adoration showered upon L.A.’s favorite food critic. And while the film could have been shorter, it does provide a glimpse into the life of a gourmandizing genius who brings much more to the people of L.A. than just the next “it” food trend.

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