There is a scene in Laura Gabbert’s documentary “City of Gold” when Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold is accompanied to a favorite restaurant by the New Yorker’s famous humorist and food writer Calvin Trillin. Gold credits Trillin with being one of the earliest American writers to concentrate on the food Americans really eat rather than the food they hope will advertise their superior taste.
At that moment, I dearly wished the whole movie had been about Trillin, the Cleveland-raised modern master who understood exactly how much of the New Yorker magazine’s fabled sophistication was founded on the transplanted plainness and candor of mid-Westerners.
It isn’t that Pulitzer Prize-winning Gold isn’t easy to like. He’s a journalism prize waiting to happen, a popularity contest where a lot of smart money would rain down on his stooped shoulders.
To be personal here, I’m automatically drawn to any lifelong critic (he used to write about L.A. hip-hop, among other things) who dearly loves Los Angeles, one of the most unfairly dismissed cities in America. I’ve loved L.A. since the first moment I set foot in the city in the 1970s – especially its geographic and social vastness.
Gold’s reviews are loved in the L.A. Times (and previously L.A. Weekly) for their underdog vision of the city as the exact opposite of an ethnic “melting pot,” i.e. a place where all manner of ethnic populations come together but remain proudly and gloriously themselves, in all their culinary splendor.
So L.A. to Gold is an endless fiesta of taco trucks, hot dog vendors, strip mall ramen places and Ethiopian restaurants that spring up suddenly when homesick mothers are given start-up money by their doctor sons. Who couldn’t love a portly, shambling, long-haired urban misfit who loved to tell you about such places rather than all that food that seems to exist to prove that you’ll never be good enough for it?
Who wouldn’t want to read this guy? Who wouldn’t want to be in Trillin’s seat, accompanying him to one of his favorite joints?
I certainly would.
None of that means that this movie is particularly interesting because it really isn’t. He seems like a fine fellow, this Gold. And a lot of the food looks awfully good (though the filmmaker seems to have been all-too-conspicuously avoiding “food porn”).
But if he ever gives negative reviews, we don’t hear about it. And if his very particular love of his incredibly diverse city ever caused journalistic friction among colleagues, we don’t hear about that either. It’s not for nothing that a lot of people call this movie hagiography.
A lot of what has happened in journalism in the past few decades seems – if you shift the focus ever-so-slightly – to be a kind of politically correct form of old-fashioned boosterism.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it as long as you recognize it. Why shouldn’t a food critic love his city? And have a truly special insight about the things that make it wonderful even though the customary reaction to his city elsewhere is condescension?
But the filmmaker never convinces you that you’ve spent 96 minutes of your life watching something worthwhile - unless you’ve somehow missed the wholesale diversification and democritization of food writing in America in the past 20 years.
If you lived in L.A., of course, you’d probably feel differently.
The trouble with “City of Gold” is that I couldn’t help feeling that everything that’s truly interesting about this guy had been left entirely off the screen.
“City of Gold”
2 1/2 stars. Documentary about Pulitzer Prize-winning L.A. food critic Jonathan Gold. Directed by Laura Gabbert. 96 minutes. Rated R for language.