So far as we know, humans have always taken an interest in food and expressed opinions on why they prefer one combination of proteins and carbohydrates to a slightly different mixture of the same. Millions of words are written and read about the preparation and appreciation of our meals, and if you happen to own at least a small assortment of cookbooks, chances are good that they are the oldest books in your home. (My personal favorites are the two volumes of Ann Thomas' The Vegetarian Epicure, their bindings literally crumbling away after 40 years of use).
Only in our current narcissistic age do we pretend that this long-standing interest in food has become "the next big thing," even creating a new term – an F-word I will decline to use – to claim an identifying space in the shadowy ground between novelty and conformity that defines so much of our culture. There have always been food fads, but today we have an entire industry of theme restaurants, celebrity chefs and reality TV programs in which traditional notions of cuisine have been replaced by contests and competitions.
City of Gold is about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who serves in the film as a surrogate for the current food faddism. Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-'80s while also working as music editor for the LA Weekly. Unlike traditional food writing, Gold's column "Counter Intelligence" turned away from five-star restaurants and explored the hundreds of hole-in-the-wall counters and exotic cuisines that had cropped up within the multicultural metropolis of southern California. Combining diligent research with boundless curiosity, he learned to enjoy and explain styles of cooking that few Angelenos outside of the cook's own neighborhood had ever sampled. Over the last three decades, Gold has developed something of a cult following, as well as picking up a Pulitzer Prize for his work at the Weekly – the first ever awarded for food criticism.
If, as the oft-quoted remark has it, writing about music is like dancing about architecture, imagine how even more awkward a task it must be to try filming about writing about cooking. There's not much in the way of taste or smell that a film can convey (the great documentary filmmaker Les Blank tried to solve this problem by suggesting that exhibitors should cook in the auditorium when his films were screened). The best that City of Gold can do, following the lead of Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, is dwell lovingly over the preparation of meals at the various places Gold visits. Warning: this film contains scenes of graphic sautéing.
Laura Gabbert's film is a friendly portrait of Gold, content to ride shotgun as drives around LA pointing out favored establishments and chatting with a few of the restaurateurs along the way. We learn a bit about his past (he played cello in a punk band), peek in on a few family gatherings and endure a few uncomfortable moments with guest star food writers, who appear to have brought in solely to add a touch of variety: Calvin Trillin looks a little puzzled, while Ruth Reichl obnoxiously proclaims that anyone who doesn't eat grasshoppers "is an idiot."
As short on substance as your typical food-centered reality TV series, City of Gold is held together, for better or worse, by the slightly acerbic personality of its subject. We don't get much sense of what his writing is like until very close to the end, so the reduced soundbites and throwaway lines frequently come off as a bit pretentious (at one point he describes something by stating "there really is a thereness between a thereness." A rebuke to Gertrude Stein?).
But despite its noticeable lack of conflict, City of Gold is oddly charming as a love letter to the Los Angeles area. Gold, an LA native, clearly and explicitly loves the city, and Gabbert shares his affection, capturing the sights and streets of the region with unabashed affection. Though the film fails completely in its efforts to convert those of us who are perfectly happy to leave grasshoppers hopping in the fields rather than on our plates, it is, for much of its 89 minutes, an entertainingly laid-back travelogue, the most enthusiastic celebration of the City of Angels since Randy Newman declared his love back in 1983.0x006E
pullquote: Gold, an LA native, clearly and explicitly loves the city, and Gabbert shares his affection, capturing the sights and streets of the region with unabashed affection.