The first food critic to be award a Pulitzer Prize, Jonathan Gold is esteemed for his perception as a cultural observer as well as a culinary expert. Laura Gabbert’s “City of Gold” neatly echoes that appeal by amplifying its native Los Angeleno subject’s love of both gastronomic diversity and his wildly diverse hometown itself. You needn’t be previously knowledgable about either to be charmed by this ebullient documentary, which could fit the menu plans for distributors in various formats. Sundance Selects plans a U.S. theatrical rollout in March.
Gold is a “failed cellist,” a former L.A. Weekly proofreader and a music writer/editor who first seriously investigated his love of food with an epic quest to sample every eatery along 15-mile Pico Boulevard from downtown to Santa Monica. That alerted him to the intricacies of the sprawling megalopolis’ populations, where immigrant pockets can create a miniature “Tehrangeles” or a locus for specialties from a particular Mexican region.
Beyond his vivid, insightful prose, often heard in excerpt here, his distinction as a critic is “democratizing” a form that traditionally (especially in destination cities) has concentrated on pricey high-end establishments. Gold is at least as enthusiastic about investigating taco trucks, Korean street food, strip-mall burger and pho joints, et al. Readers have followed his trail, frequently creating long queues that make the fortunes of humble establishments that had hitherto catered only to immediate neighbors and members of the same ethnic subgroup. The vastness of Greater Los Angeles and its position on “the leading edge in diversity population growth” have created forms of culinary adventure that, he argues, are unique to the area in their proximity and commingled global influences.
Less appetizingly, he also entertains fans by regularly sampling exotic specialties they probably wouldn’t care to try themselves, such as the infamously gelatinous and nasty hagfish. His brother Mark, an environmental activist attuned to vanishing species, is only half-joking when he laments, “Jonathan’s eating everything I’m trying to save.”
Gold’s professional foibles are glimpsed — the film bemusedly notes the way his admitted penchant for procrastination drives editors mad. But in choosing to view its subject solely as a booster, the pic rather disingenuously steps completely around one topic that might seem unavoidable in discussing any critic’s role: the writing, and impact, of negative reviews, particularly when aired in publications as influential as Gourmet (for whom Gold was briefly the New York restaurant reviewer) and the L.A. Times (to which he returned in 2012).
That’s a major omission, but easy enough to forgive while partaking in “City of Gold’s” smorgasbord of food, culture and ideas. Sleekly shot and edited, with an attractive (and aptly diverse) original score by Bobby Johnston, the film often slips into a sort of free-form city-symphony lyricism, appreciating a miscellany of everyday L.A. sights and sounds that very seldom touch the Hollywood aspect of common popular association. At a moment when public discourse seems so often focused on exacerbating hostile divisions, this docu’s joyful embrace of human (as well as edible) variety as “the spice of life” seems particularly, well, filling.