Thursday, March 31, 2016

Worth moving to LA for

City of Gold (opening Friday at the Main Art Theatre), directed by Laura Gabbert, is not about a famous musician, painter or architect. It’s about someone probably no person outside of Los Angeles has ever heard of. It’s about the food and restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Jonathan Gold. Yet the documentary is fascinating. That’s because of who Gold is. Hardly a pedestrian restaurant critic slapping on three stars to the latest bourgeois-bohemian eatery in a gentrifying part of town, Gold’s reportorial canvas is the almost 5,000 square miles of Greater Los Angeles, a kaleidoscope of a myriad ethnic cultures that have exploded over the last 40-50 years, unfolding in a tapestry on a scale greater than in any other US city. The film’s title says it all. For portraying Gold isn’t just depicting an exquisitely curious writer, fascinated by the seemingly unending variety of food and restaurant culture in Los Angeles. It’s about how his writing about those hundreds of ethnic cuisines – and numerous permutations within seemingly monolithic cultures – transcends the artful descriptions of the meals themselves to portrayals of a city of highly differentiated villages that have knitted LA together. Says urban theorist Michael Dear: “His culinary mapping becomes a cartography of the region, and through leading us we come to understand our city.” In his characteristically southern California pickup truck, the long-haired (and former classical and rock music writer and performer) Gold, heads out on the wide boulevards visiting the often unsung eateries of nondescript blocks and strip plazas, where glorious gastronomic delights await. The variety is profound and astounding – the singular delights of Chengdu Chinese cuisine, Chinese serving up American Chinese food as exotic to fellow Chinese, a restaurant that serves boiled duck with all the fat taken out, Korean street food “previously unimaginable in both California and Seoul,” dishes like hand-cut tonkotsu ramen, Thai pad see ew, and exotica like Oaxacan grasshopper soup and Hagfish or slime eels – “the filets are gelatinous,” he says. In Gold’s love for the city I’m reminded of Randy Newman’s 1983 song I Love LA. Gold believes the city is portrayed wrongly as undifferentiated urban sprawl. But, as exemplified by its cuisine and cultures LA is “less a melting pot than a great glittering mosaic.” But Gold is, after all, a restaurant critic, and explains the tricks of the trade. He makes reservations under different names, and has used disposable phones with different numbers, though recently threw off any pretense at being identified. He doesn’t write a review until he’s visited a restaurant at least four or five times. He’s as much cheerleader as critic - “you want these guys to succeed.” Still, it must be uncomfortable being eyeballed. And what kind of feedback does he get when he’s written a negative review? Have his pieces closed restaurants? The film doesn’t say. I would also have liked the film to continue identifying those it interviews, a common irritant of documentaries. Yet the movie is a stunner: about food, yes, but more about LA and its thriving intricacies of culture.

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