If you are the kind of person who would prefer to collect recipe books rather than eat at a new restaurant, the documentary “City of Gold” is perfect for your cinematic palate. The examination of Los Angeles Times food writer Jonathan Gold is more about the process of writing about food than the actual experience of a meal being prepared and served up with all its seductive qualities.
“City of Gold,” this month’s Fresno Filmworks feature that screens Friday night only, is from director Laura Gabbert. It tags along with Gold as he eats his way through the small ethnic pockets in the Los Angeles area. Gold’s standard is to look deep into as many cuisines as possible to dish up the particulars about food that often sounds more like a parody than a loving dish.
He’s a man who will trumpet the good qualities of a pig’s foot croquette or deer penis while showing as much passion for a well-made hot dog. The majority of his passion is revealed through his writings, which are sprinkled through the film like paprika in a perfect New Orleans jambalaya. The snippets of writing are the best moments because Gold is a master wordsmith.
These beautifully crafted reviews offers insight into the mind and mouth of Gold. That’s often countermanded by the endless flow of testimonials heaping the kind of praise on Gold usually reserved for eulogies. After the seventh or eighth helping of uplifting insights, the proclamations elevate Gold above being the food critic of the common man and more like a culinary god who washes each review down with a bit of ambrosia. These praises are so unrelenting that there’s a moment where there’s a real disconnect between this food critic and his readers.
Gold is praised by restaurant owners and chefs for his willingness to look past haute cuisine and savor their dishes. There’s even a suggestion that he’s a great critic because he has such empathy for those who slave over a hot stove. Empathy isn’t always the greatest attribute when it comes to criticism because it suggests a tilt away from impartiality. There’s no way of knowing from this film how far Gold tilts.
No matter how much they try to hide it, documentarians bring a point of view to their work. Gabbert is so in love with Gold that she fails to show any darker side. There have to have been dishes and restaurants that made Gold wish he had taken a more mundane job like being a film critic.
It’s obvious Gold’s reviews have reached such a zenith that he’s changed lives with a tap of the keyboard. But has he ever shattered a dream? A more balanced view would have shown a more complex Gold.
The much heralded food critic is a worthy subject. The Pulitzer Prize winner has been compared to author Raymond Chandler in how he’s turned a spotlight on all the cooks and crannies of the City of Angels. But each dish Gold samples creates a hunger for more about those behind the dishes than the man who consumes the meals.
The documentary is like being served the most amazing seven-course meal but three of the dishes are missing. The product is tasty, but it’s just shy of being a fully satisfying experience.
City of Gold
Cast: Jonathan Gold, David Chang, Roy Choi
Director: Laura Gabbert
Rating: R (language)
Opens: Screens 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, Tower Theatre. Advance tickets cost $10 general and $8 for students and seniors, and available at the Tower Theatre box office, 815 E. Olive Ave., or online at http://fresnofilmworks.org/buy-tickets/
Meet the director: “City of Gold” director Laura Gabbert will give a Q&A after the 5:30 p.m. showing.