Saturday, April 02, 2016

Less contempt prior to investigation

Go!
The new documentary City of Gold, about Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, will make you hungry, of course, but the movie is about much more than food. It’s a love letter to multi-ethnic Los Angeles, a meditation on the role of criticism in our culture, and a study of the way a vast and seemingly unknowable megalopolis can be tied together by one writer’s sensibility. It’s also the portrait of an eccentric genius. I do think Gold is a genius. Can I use that word? Ugh, I hate that word. I’m not even sure what it means. But I have a collection of Gold reviews that I read cover to cover many years ago even though I don’t live in L.A. and couldn’t eat at any of the restaurants. If that’s not evidence of genius, it’s evidence of real brilliance.

I was unprepared for the Gold persona. I expected him to be as polished and charismatic as his prose, but he’s an unassuming, freckled walrus of a man with long, greying, red hair. He lives amid piles of books and drives a beefy Ram 1500 truck. I keep wanting to use the word “Falstaffian,” but that’s only because he’s stout. In fact, Gold isn’t Falstaffian at all. Rather, he comes across as gentle, quiet, genial, and empathetic. He rides around L.A. creating this incredible, ever-changing map of the city in which the plot points are taco trucks, pupuseries, hot dog stands, and Korean restaurants. People navigate by that map. People have learned about not just the foods of their enormous city, but the staggering diversity of cultures within its boundaries.

Gold is a generous and kind reviewer. One of the people interviewed praises him for his refusal to indulge in the contemporary American habit of expressing “contempt prior to investigation.” I tried to take a pen out of my bag so I could scribble this line on my hand or something, but everything fell noisily out of my bag onto the floor of the theater which is one way to spoil your movie experience. I remembered the line anyway! And when the movie ended I looked it up on my phone and discovered it’s a well known concept from AA. Perhaps you’ve heard it before, but it’s new to me, and inspiring. I jump to contemptuous conclusions all the time based on little to no investigation and it wouldn’t be bad to curb this tendency. While sitting in this very coffee shop typing just now, a fleshy tattooed guy came in wearing orange shorts and a red tank top, super-loud clothes that revealed way, way too much hairy back for this venue. Or any venue? Mark met my eye and shook his head. I said, “No contempt prior to investigation.”

He said, “I’m going to feel contempt. I don’t need to investigate. Gross.”

It was gross. Still, it's worth thinking hard before you jump from grossness of the attire to any kind of judgment of the person who chose to wear it. Obviously. Kindergarten lesson. And yet I forget.

Back to City of Gold. My favorite part of the movie was an interview with Roy Choi, founder of the Kogi food trucks and author of L.A. Son. Choi says that when he was just starting out he had all these exciting but inchoate ideas about what he wanted to express with his cooking. Then he read Gold's review of his food and he thought, that’s it. JG explained what Roy Choi was doing to Roy Choi. He also explained it to the rest of us. That's one of the vital roles that a great critic plays, one that Yelp never will.


Anyway, I liked this film a lot and recommend it. I can’t say the same of Batman v. Superman. Superhero movies don’t usually go over my head, but I could never figure out why exactly Batman and Superman were fighting. That was pretty crucial to appreciating the movie. It was Owen’s second viewing and he walked out in a state of such intense artistic rapture, that I can’t dismiss the film completely. I’ve investigated, but even so I’m not prepared to express contempt. Just bafflement.

23 comments:

  1. Every week I listen to Evan Kleiman and Jonathan Gold on Evan's show "Good Food" (you should check out this podcast if you don't already listen to it). Gold gives the impression that he is always looking forward to whatever restaurant he's talking about, from very high-end, high-concept places to funky little dives that consist of someone shoveling curried goat onto styrofoam plates and three people sitting on plastic lawn chairs to eat it. And I love that he loves LA so freaking much.

    (Do I get first comment? So exciting!)

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    Replies
    1. Evan Kleiman is in the movie. You should see it. I'll check out her podcast.

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    2. I live in farm country, Wisconsin, and I LOVE listening to Jonathan Gold on Good Food, even though it's unlikely that I will ever have the opportunity to visit any of the restaurants he reviews. His voice sucks me in every time. Looking forward to seeing this film.

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  2. I'm looking forward to City of Gold! Next week, I'm going to find time watch it.

    A recommendation for you: The "Other People's Food" episodes on The Sporkful. As someone who likes to immerse herself in so many cuisines, I think you'll like it! http://www.sporkful.com/tag/other-peoples-food/

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    Replies
    1. I'll check out the sporkful. Thanks for the recommendation!

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. On a recent visit to LA, I decided to finally investigate one the many San Gabriel valley restaurants that Jonathan Gold has touted and that friends have recommended. I had never even been to the San Gabriel valley, a large swath of the LA basin South of Pasadena and North of I-10, flat, full of anonymous looking housing developments, rock quarries and a large Chinese immigrant community. Does that sound a tad contemptuous? Well perhaps, but I was willing to explore because of Gold. We stopped at the Seafood Palace in Temple City, a small city I had never even heard of, let alone visited. The restaurant had been reviewed by Gold back in December, and it was an unassuming looking place in the middle of a downtown block full of small local storefronts. Now, I have eaten some very fine Chinese food in Hong Kong, Beijing and of course the Bay Area. But the Seafood Palace was sublime on a level that I could not have imagined. The food was simple, but subtle, and deeply refined. It didn't cost much, the service was impeccable if a tad brusque. Most of all it was proof of Jonathan Gold's determination to ferret out the most exemplary places to experience the joys of food as played out across a spectrum of cultures in LA. I don't much like LA, but I can't wait to see City of Gold and to go back and eat in the San Gabriel valley.

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad that his recommendations are actually good. I ate at his beloved Thai restaurant many years ago and I remember it being great. Next time I go to L.A. I'm going to be more systematic about seeking out some of his Asian and Latin American spots.

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  5. I found Jonathan Gold through Good Food which I found through the enthralling series Chef's Table. I can't wait to see the movie but I live in San Antonio so I hope it comes to a streaming service soon. Speaking of critics, have you read AO Scott's new book on criticism? I wanted to like it but kept referring to it as What We Talk About When We Decide How To Talk About Things ... I think I'm just allergic to philosophy. Too much of an empiricist. Le sigh.

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    1. I tried to read the AO Scott book. I took it out of the library because I love his criticism so much, but I couldn't get any traction with it. I'm going to try again one of these weeks.

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  6. I generally find contemporary documentaries a slog to get through--and pretty uncritical--but recommendations from you are in a special category. Also: I love films about Los Angeles. Have you ever seen Los Angeles Plays Itself by Thom Andersen? Highly recommended.

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  7. the bon appetit podcast (Burnt Toast) just interviewed him...I listened to it on a run. He seems like a genuinely nice person.

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