CITY OF GOLD is about the transformative power of food and food writing in how we experience where we live. Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Jonathan Gold, is our VIrgilian guide, casting his light upon a vibrant and growing cultural movement, a movement in which he plays the dual roles of high-low priest and culinary geographer of his beloved Los Angeles.
You might approach this film in the same way that I did: with a deep respect for Gold's work and a general interest in so-called foodie culture. You might have even first encountered Gold's work in much the same way that I did--by stumbling upon a glowing review pasted near your table in some hole-in-the-wall eatery (in my case, the Chung King Restaurant in the Monterey Park location that now houses Huolala). Like me, you'll certainly find much to enjoy in this documentary such as the fascinating forays into some of his most liked restaurants (perhaps some of which you have even been to) and the bemusing insights into his personal life (as a "failed cellist"; as a man of voracious appetites for food, knowledge, culture, and so on). Unfortunately, these small vignettes amount to the entirety of the film's charm and there is little to elevate it to greater than the sum of its parts.
City of Gold feels disjointed, fragmented, and altogether uncompleted to me. I don't necessarily feel that a documentary must ascribe some overarching meaning to its subject--a character study can often stand on its own--but even as a character study, the film fell flat. There seems to be no rhyme or reason to what is included and when it is included in the film. Instead, even some of the most fascinating points simply feel shoehorned in at awkward times. The final twenty or thirty minutes, for instance, use a KCRW guest DJ appearance by Gold as a sort of refrain. It is a cheap way to investigate his persona and it fails to link up with much of anything else in the documentary.
My biggest gripe with City of Gold is how it failed in a way that ultimately separates good documentaries from mediocre ones: much of it felt like performance rather than unadulterated insight. In some scenes, he is at the LA Times offices and in meeting with his editors and others to discuss upcoming pieces. Any notion of unfiltered access is immediately dispelled: much of the conversation seems addressed to the camera (the viewer) and it feels both stilted and pretending.
The film, as short as it is, feels at least twenty minutes too long. At the conclusion, it fails to make up for this. There is a great documentary somewhere inside of City of Gold. Had I turned it off after the first 30 minutes, my review would likely be 8 stars but, well, it just kept going (nowhere).
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