Laura Gabbert’s City of Gold was a film I wasn’t too keen on watching. It’d received some positive mark ups in the Hollywood trades when it premiered at Sundance in January but it certainly wasn’t a high priority to me at this year’s edition of Miami-Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival (at least not in comparison to the 10 listed here). Making the drive on a Saturday afternoon to the Beach and braving the tourists on Lincoln Road wasn’t an ideal scenario either. But when my more culinary-inclined friends Rosy and Sherwin told me they were catching the movie too, I decided to quit being a sourpuss and make the trip. I’m glad I did because despite getting caught dead in the middle of a torrential downpour on my way back to the parking lot after the movie, I was going home having experienced what has easily been the highlight of the festival thus far.
Nothing has made me want to book a return trip to Los Angeles more than Laura Gabbert’s spellbinding documentary City of Gold. Although it’s been described as a biography of Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, Gabbert’s film is more of a passionate love letter to Los Angeles’ thriving culinary landscape, and an ode to the immigrants who have enriched the city’s flavor.
Gabbert’s doc tells the story of how Gold, an eloquent yet soft-spoken writer whose lyrical musings on taco stands and Korean hole-in-walls become the high priest of Los Angeles’ food scene. The first and only food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for food criticism, Gold has been described by many as the Raymond Chandler of food critics in that he approaches something familiar (in this case, street food) and allows us to see it in a completely new light. Gold’s reviews aren’t merely a collection of superlatives but poetic stories that invite readers to relive his culinary experiences with him.
Gabbert approaches her documentary in the same way. Framed as a travelogue through the city’s sprawling collection of neighborhoods, we travel with Gold in his ragged green pick-up truck and watch him visit (and eat at) many of the restaurants he helped turn into local staples. Unlike most food critics and bloggers who only review the hip and happening joints of their cities, Gold doesn’t discriminate between “high-brow” and “low-brow” restaurants. In fact, he takes pride in his ability to find the diamonds in the rough. Galbert spends time with many of these restaurant owners, many who offer touching stories of how Gold changed their lives. Stories like these give Gabbert’s film emotional heft and reveal Gold’s impact as a cultural commentator.
Time is also spent on Gold’s work ethic (he has a penchant for procrastination), his origins as a food writer, his time as a hip hop journalist in the 90s as well as his stint as a cello player in a punk rock band in the 70s. These anecdotes, which are provided by people like his wife, his brother, colleagues at the Los Angeles times and the L.A. Weekly as well as food personalities like Andrew Zimmerman and David Chang, provide keen insight into how he developed his quirkiness and distinct appetite. Some may critique City of Gold for its fawning portrait of its subject—that’s a valid criticism—but Gabbert’s film is so warm-hearted and enjoyable, that you don’t mind the minor bumps.
After the screening, Gabbert was on hand to answer any questions the enthusiastic audience had for her. She noted that the film took about five years to produce, from the funding process all the way to its world premiere at Sundance. She also explained that chose Gold as her subject because she grew up on his writing when she moved to L.A. for graduate school. Since people tend to associate critics with negative reviews, one audience member asked Gabbert why the film didn’t include any negative reviews. She explained that Gold, for the most part, doesn’t write negative reviews. If he doesn’t like a restaurant, he simply won’t write about it. Taking down a business isn’t something that interests him. That being said, he has had some less than positive things to say about a few high-end places but they weren’t scathing reviews. That’s something I found to be fascinating, and unique… especially in the world of criticism.
Additional reporting by Rosalyn Delgado.
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