We’d had such good luck with food documentaries in the past with—well, I guess only with Deli Man—that we thought we’d take a chance with City of Gold which is not only about food, but about our fair city.
So let’s get the basics out of the way: Jonathan Gold is an interesting guy who writes about food for the L.A. Times, and particularly focuses on the sorts of restaurants critics had formerly eschewed, eating at taco trucks and little dives off the more fashionable parts of the city. He seems to have a good work ethic from the standpoint of visiting a restaurant many times repeatedly before writing on it, but less so from the standpoint of, say, meeting deadlines. This is something any writer can appreciate.
He also seems to see himself as having a mission: That of uniting the diverse elements of the city in a common love of food.
The thing is, either of these is sufficient for a documentary, and this one can’t seem to pick which story to tell. It switches between Gold’s history, the various restaurants he’s reviewing, his family life, and so on, with no particular focus or force. (I should point out that this doc very good RT scores, hovering around 90% for audiences and critics alike.) It doesn’t even manage the usual cheesy “and that’s why genocide is bad” sort of moralizing.
For example, one of the last little vignettes in the movie is about his role in ’90s L.A. hip-hop. It’s a fine vignette, but you’re left wondering why are we getting this story now?
I don’t know. It didn’t really connect with us. It’s hard to dislike, actually, because even as sappy liberal “can’t we all get along” kumbaya-ism, it’s actually pretty relatable. We do all like food, after all, and cultures sort of advance via their food. As in, “sort of, but don’t push it.”
Three point scale:
- The material is interesting. Probably more than it should be. But it is true there is a huge variety of restaurants in this city, and it’s also true that some of the best are holes-in-the-wall. Gold himself is interesting, as is his wife, and his relationship with his wife and kids (who are adorable).
- Presentation. Technically fine, from the standpoint of visual and audio, with a good amount of the sorts of shots of the city that make it look a lot better than it will on any given day.
- Bias. The usual notions that worship diversity as an almost spiritual value, and the usual (but not bad) tendency toward hagiography.
I’m going to end this with a rant, but it’s not really related to the movie. We thought, in summary, it was okay, it just didn’t grab us—though it did occasionally make us hungry.
Now, my rant.
One thing that kind of pissed me off: This guy actually drives around San Gabriel Valley—they show him doing that repeatedly and many of his favorite restaurants are there. El Monte, Baldwin Park, Covina, and the like. But God forbid he should actually visit the San Fernando Valley, which is actually part of freakin’ L.A. city. A whopping two of Gold’s top 101 restaurants are in the Valley, in Studio City, which is a kind of ersatz Westwood, and as close to the edge of the Gold’s more fashionable roaming area as possible. 98% of the Valley goes unnoticed. As usual. (We’re like Queens or New Jersey if you’re familiar with how Manhattanites treat those areas.)
This, combined with the eating of crickets and a near complete lack of interest in Western cuisine makes me think he’s got a few cultural blinders, and a greater interest in the exotic. (He and his companion say we’re going to all have to eat bugs eventually. I’ve been hearing that since I was a kid.) Just once I’d like to see one of these documentaries give the SFV a little respect.