There’s an observation made by one-time Los Angeles Times Op-Editor Sue Horton in “City of Gold” that I’ve thought to myself many times while reading the food writing of the paper’s cultural critic Jonathan Gold. Ruminating on how Gold has collected such a devoted readership, not to mention a Pulitzer Prize, Horton believes her former colleague’s secret weapon is his use of the second person, suggesting the things “you’d” want to try at any given restaurant, Horton describes how he’s able to “invite you to his table” with his words.
Possibly the highest compliment you could pay “City of Gold” director Laura Gabbert is to say she achieves exactly the same thing with her film, inviting you quite literally into the passenger seat of Gold’s truck as he traverses the city in search of tasty morsels. However, in following the writer whose appetite for food is matched by one for unique experiences, she’s able to accomplish something even greater – a portrait of the sprawling metropolis he calls home in all its multicultural glory, which as he puts it is “less a melting pot than a great, glistening mosaic.” With overhead shots of downtown and its freeway tentacles that extend into suburbs that have been appropriated by one ethnic group or another as their home away from home, “City of Gold” summons the power of Gold’s writing without actually relying on it, though he’ll occasional read choice passages from his work as voiceover accompaniment to the beautiful imagery Gabbert and cinematographers Jerry Henry and Goro Toshiba let flood the screen. His myriad influences from growing up in Los Angeles can be seen on the streets whether he’s passing by the former Junior’s Deli (now Lenny’s) on Westwood Blvd or the camera zooms in on a busker playing mariachi music and Gabbert, who previously directed the LA-set “Sunset Story” about one of the city’s oldest retirement homes, is able to convey the every day magic of living in a place where all it takes is a 15-minute drive to escape into a different culture.
The film is less adventurous formally, but it’s of no matter considering how satisfying something simply prepared with all the right ingredients can be. Chefs Ludo Lefebvre and Roy Choi testify to what makes Gold a critic they trust, both noting separately that he’ll often see the things in their cooking that they can’t see themselves, while editors such as the Times’ Assistant Managing Editor Alice Short bring him more down to earth by speaking to the burden of being an editor that has to impose deadlines on him. In fact, a third facet of the film about how Gold stumbled into writing about food in the first place, the process of how he develops his articles and the procrastination he regularly engages in is a refreshingly frank look at the profession. “City of Gold” also doesn’t shy away from what’s long been a subject of local intrigue – his relationship with his brother Mark, the former president of Heal the Bay whose passion for protecting endangered species was at odds with Jonathan’s omnivorous job. But it’s particularly cunning of Gabbert to have others tell their personal stories of how they came to Los Angeles, in particular the immigrant owners of eateries whose fortunes changed with a Gold review such as the Thai hot spot Jitlada or the Ethiopian joint Meals by Genet on Fairfax, reflecting not just his influence but how they are recreating the city in their own image.
Since I’m a writer, a longtime reader of Gold’s, and an Angeleno, I may be biased as the target audience for the film, yet “City of Gold” is actually a celebration of there being no such thing, inspiring one to broaden their tastes. The film is especially savvy in how well-organized it is, opening itself up gradually to those unfamiliar with either Gold or Los Angeles while giving those who hang on every word something new to chew on. Given Gold’s gift of gab, it wouldn’t have been difficult to make something entertaining by exclusively spending time in his company, yet “City of Gold” takes both references in its title seriously, somehow making it look as effortless as it does in Gold’s writing to capture the diversity and vitality of a city the size of Los Angeles. To preserve even a moment of it as it continues to shift and evolve is truly something to savor.
“City of Gold” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play four more times at the Sundance Film Festival on January 28th at 9 am at the Yarrow Hotel Theatre, January 29th at 9:45 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinema 3, January 30th at 6 pm at the Redstone Cinema 7, and January 31st at 3 pm at the Egyptian Theatre.