Documentality: Episode 7: The Hard Sell of Reenactments and the ‘City of Gold’

By April 14, 2016

Few things describe the life of a writer, or any creator for that matter, then the blank page.  A monolith of white, featureless and still conveying the crushing weight of expectation, it absorbs your stares and offers nothing in return.  It is with the blank page that Laura Gabbert begins City of Gold, her new documentary profiling Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold.  Drumming his fingers right up until the moment of uncomfortableness, he suddenly launches into his signature 2nd person style of restaurant review, aided by his voice over and tightly edited montage of said restaurant.  His sudden burst of inspiration serves as the starting pistol for what City of Gold really is about: one man’s lifelong articulation of his love of a city that embodies multiculturalism perhaps better than any in this country.  

In fact, while an entertaining documentary could be crafted about a food critic and his city, the film uses the obvious as window into the allure of culture, the fluidity of community, and the bliss of discovery. Yes, City of Gold is about food in so much as food is one of the primary windows into ethnicity.  In this regard Gold (the man, not the film) is more adventuring anthropologist than author, or as he states his methodology, a “Fat man’s Bourne Identity.” 

It’s about the art of criticism, but only in regard to what Ratatouile’s villainous Anton Ego describes as, “the defense of the new, because the new needs friends.”  To that end, several first and second act pods focus on the significance a Jonathan Gold review brings, as we hear from multiple accounts of small, privately owned restaurants focussing in on region specific ethnic cuisine (Jitlada, with it’s rural Thai and Meals by Genet’s down home Ethiopian food being prime standouts), being completely saved and brought to prominence due solely to a J.Gold review.  As the first and only recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Food Criticism, it’s hard to argue against his track record.  It’s about the history of Los Angeles immigrant community, especially when you realize that LA’s unique layout provides, as someone says in the film, “the meeting points of cultural fault lines where really beautiful things occur.” 

Stylistically, the film is built to highlight and glorify those fault lines.  In between segments of Jonathan driving to the San Gabriel Valley for it’s regional Chinese renaissance, or a trip to a taco truck with his wife, the film is buffered by montages of the real Los Angeles.  A woman crossing the streets in Watts, skateboarders grinding their trucks into the concrete in the west side, and a fruit vendor near mariachi square are all shot with as much care and affection as Ludo Lefevre’s Trois Mec restaurant.  For indeed, the brilliance of Jonathan’s writing is in his ability to level the playing field between the bougie and humble.  Even a casual glimpse at his reviews reveal comparable word counts for Spago and Chengdu Taste. 

In that regard, the films “beauty,” shots does in fact include a trip down Rodeo, but just as many shots of tagged bridges, a gorgeous steady cam shot through Grand Central Market, and a hazy gridlocked sunset on…Sunset boulevard.  At one point Jonathan describes the experience of being an Angelino as “having your city explained to you by people who don’t live here,” and as a native myself, this is absolutely true.  When I hear complaints of Los Angeles, it’s usually a tiny part of the city they are referencing.  Because what Gold understands, and what the film conveys, is that Los Angeles is a lenticular image carved from luminescent concrete.  

As captured by Laura Gabbart, our roads serve as wormholes, as class, race, history, and even climate is all subject to change in the course of a 30 minute drive.  It’s an experience dizzying for some, but reveled by Gold.  As we learn about Jonathan the man in the second half of act two, we began to realize why he savors it so.  For Jonathan, LA is a “glorious mosaic,” where culture’s “collide in beautiful and haphazard ways.”  Don’t get him, or me, wrong: The food is pretty good, too.  Gloriously shot by  Jerry Henry and Goro Toshima, the food is stunning wether its sizzling on a plancha grill or being served to Jonathan and his dining guests.  There are a few unnecessary beats, as we probably didn’t need info on wether food critics should be anonymous, though your mileage may vary.  Regardless of that, this is Laura Gabbart’s best work as a Director, by a clear margin and her skills lend themselves toward this style of philosophical bio-doc.  

The final scene is Jonathan Gold doing a reading at a book store of one of his earlier essays.  He takes to the lectern and chokes up before saying in not much more of a whisper, “I…I love Los Angeles.” I won’t spoil the piece he reads from but, it’s a beautiful capstone to Gabbart’s film.  More than most biographical doc’s, City of Gold is a perfect example of both examining a person, and also placing a camera directly behind their eyes.  Someone visiting Los Angeles may never see any beauty in it.  But anyone watching City of Gold will understand what Jonathan Gold sees, and why he does.  

You can listen to this week’s episode of Documentality right here.

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Edward Doty