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.