The temptation for foodie-oriented flicks, be they fictional like “Chef‘ and “Burnt” or documentary like “Deli Man” or “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” is to indulge in food porn. The director as professional Instagrammer sensibility gets especially enflamed around a delicious dish of well-plated grub.
So color me pleasantly surprised that documentarian Laura Gabberts seems more interested in sumptuous displays of the prose of her subject, Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, than the delicious tacos on which he chows. Her film, “City of Gold,” provides a deeper glimpse into the titular figure than his columns can provide. Of course, to read a writer’s words is to know the writer. (At least I’d like to think so.) But by training her camera on Gold as he drives to his next taco truck, she gets him to open up on the thematic threads that run latently through his work.
Gold typically eschews the stuffy five-star restaurants so that he can explore the cuisine of the streets. He flocks to hole in the walls, strip centers and mobile eateries. For him, food is not mere sustenance, nor is it empty consumption. Food serves as a manifestation of our culture, and if journalists and critics wrote only about the spots easily offered up by well-funded PR machines, they would not be doing their jobs. Instead of serving as advocates or crusaders for the best there is to offer, such a form of criticism just serves to reify a pay-to-play world.
As Gold constantly seeks to find the pulse of Los Angeles, he travels out to suburbs and ethnic communities in order to get a sense for how their cuisine reflects both the city and the nation in microcosm. For all those who write criticism, food-related or not, “City of Gold” serves as a reminder call for best practices along with a master class on par with a portion of A.O. Scott’s book “Better Living Through Criticism” or the Roger Ebert documentary “Life Itself.” Everyone else will likely take away a deeper appreciate not only for what critics do but also the ways in which criticism as a medium of expression works on them. B+ /