City of Gold (Laura Gabbert, 2016): USA
Reviewed by Elizabeth Gain. Viewed at the Lobero Theater, Santa Barbara.
Before watching this film, I did not know about Jonathan Gold, the first journalist to win a Pulitzer prize for food reviews. I live near Los Angeles, though, so I definitely know about its massive urban sprawl, and I have wondered how its residents find community there. City of Gold shines light onto a remarkable phenomenon – how the food reviews of one man help people explore and make meaningful ties to the landscape of LA.
Jonathan Gold is a gentle, plump, suspenders-wearing redhead, and the film is a culinary tour of LA with him. Graphics of a map of the city break the film into chapters (downtown taco trucks, fancy restaurants in Hollywood, family shops in Little Ethiopia, etc.), and the movie follows Gold as he visits some of his favorite restaurants in each district. Gold is a humble, egalitarian common man, with an open mind and endless culinary curiosity, who describes himself as a “cultural omnivore.” Restaurant owners are happy to see him, and their interviews reveal much more. Many of them describe the impact his writing has had on their businesses and their own lives, which significantly adds to the richness of the film.
In documentary fashion, the film succeeds at keeping you engaged with its heartwarming celebration of an unlikely local hero. It moves at a fast tempo most of the time, with groovy music interspersed with scenic LA driving shots. Conversations and meals are shot with many different camera angles and we see lots of food preparation in kitchens. At SBIFF, the director explained that they obtained this variety by visiting each restaurant at least two times, and they returned later without Gold to shoot the kitchen. That is when she discovered the stories of the restauranteurs, many of them immigrants who were aided by Gold’s reviews. These stories, scattered throughout the film, reveal an important aspect of the significance of Gold’s writing and why he deserved to win a Pulitzer.
Eating is social and tribal, and humans make meaning by how they feed themselves. Because of this, City of Gold is a human interest story for everyone. Even if you don’t live near Los Angeles, it is inspiring to see how Gold’s writing helps people cross cultural divides and discover their city. It is also inspiring to see one man who embodies the opposite of elitism and who is recognized and celebrated for his quiet achievements.