“City of Gold” opens with an image of Jonathan Gold staring at the blank screen of his laptop. Man, I can relate.
By the end of the film, anyone can. “City of Gold” is a bait and switch. It lures in food obsessives — the type who ply city outskirts in search of the perfect taco and order their pho topped with ox penis because it’s there, and maybe it’s delicious — with access to their overlord. The great Gold, now at the Los Angeles Times, won a Pulitzer at LA Weekly for his passionate quest to reveal the city’s food landscape, dish by dish. We learn about his upbringing, Jewish and cultured; his love of classical music and discovery of punk rock and hip-hop; his take on anonymity and struggles with writer’s block. But this is much more than a documentary about a restaurant critic. It is a film about Los Angeles, culture and coexistence, the American dream. It is the opposite of narrowcasting.
As directed by Laura Gabbert (“No Impact Man: The Documentary”), the pace is meditative, dictated from the passenger seat of Gold’s pickup as he drives and drives some more. “I am my truck and my truck is me,” he ruminates, a true LA mantra. As he talks — an affably bulky presence in black suspenders, with frizzy orange mane and mustache — a food-porn reel plays out. A haute cuisine landscape on a tortilla at Guerrilla Tacos, a truck run by a chef who studied with Alain Ducasse; salsa presented by a tattooed man, made by his mom, who wants Gold to try it; pistachio-green moles glistening from market cases, scooped like gelato; gorgeous dosas that look like bronze shields, drool-inducing bowls of ramen, hot dogs pulled straight off the grill.
This isn’t Hollywood’s LA. (That’s apparent just from the girth of the characters. This may be the only movie about the city in which hardly anyone is skinny.) It’s a city of immigrants from all over, and Gold is their champion. He is “telling stories of America through restaurants and food experiences others weren’t writing about,” says Andrew Zimmern of Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods” series. “His empathy level is higher than anyone else’s,” says famed chef David Chang. “He knows every place, and knows more about the food than the people from the culture.” We also hear from Calvin Trillin, Ruth Reichl, Gold’s current editors, and his wife, LA Times arts and entertainment editor Laurie Ochoa. We see fanboys converging with iPhones to take his picture.
But no one explains the Meaning of Gold better than those he writes about. We hear the same thing again and again, from people who come from Mexico, Ethiopia, Thailand. They are struggling to get by cooking the food of their homeland. Gold writes them up. And their fortunes are reversed — famous people come, they can put their kids through school. What they also say: They didn’t fully understand what they were doing until they saw it reflected back at them through Gold’s words.
He is the anti-Anton Ego, and the anti-Donald Trump — a distiller who writes from a place of love and generosity, a celebrator of the best kind of immigrant story. (And couldn’t we all use that right now.) He rarely pens a negative review. He writes in second person to bring the reader in. He has lived through LA’s riots, traversed its sketchier neighborhoods, but the story he tells is an embracing, positive one, “celebrating the glorious mosaic of the city,” as he puts it.
That’s the story “City of Gold” tells, too. It’s a neat little bit of hagiography, dwelling fondly on his quirks, but that’s OK. For people who want to taste the world, Gold is a patron saint.
CITY OF GOLD
Written and directed by Laura Gabbert. At Kendall Square. 91 minutes. Unrated.