City of Gold

City of Gold ★★

Yet another one of those movies where it feels as though its most fascinating, thought-provoking aspects are not only seemingly unintentional, but are straight-up at odds with its intent, so much so they can ~only~ come across as unintentional. This is less a foodie documentary and somewhat less a biography than it is an ode to criticism itself, here food criticism specifically but this could easily play in a double bill with, say, Life Itself. It's fairly unambitious in its form, but the structure it does have is to always return food or personal history to how Jonathan Gold relates to it through his experiences and his writing. City of Gold puts in the work showing that Gold does his research, that he only writes about what he can profess to have some insight on, and the bits of his writing that show up throughout the movie have a thoughtfulness to them that I do find intriguing.

What this movie does the best job proving, though, are sorta the damnations more astute people have of critical circles in various mediums. It's perfectly encapsulated in a section early on that aims to disassemble Yelp culture, asserting that it's the context and breadth of knowledge people like Gold bring to their writing which gives them a voice worth hearing above your average Yelp reviewer. I think that there's a certain wisdom to that, at least personally, but what I do find frustrating about that is this movie's relationship to Gold's writing through that lens. Gold's entire brand is that he writes about places which don't get the coverage of other, snootier critics, places like small food carts and tiny restaurants with foods from other cultures.

That is, to say, that many of Gold's visits, and more or less all of them in this film, are to places run by people of color. And in lionizing Gold, joining him in these various restaurants and gazing admiringly upon him as he observes what he has, especially as his company in these meals is almost always also white, this movie becomes a monument to white gatekeeping of people of color's work. Not in a cruel way, but it doesn't need to be; the point of gatekeeping being a problem is that it reinforces the power we have as white people to control what culture is validated in the popular understanding. That Gold works to boost up food other critics don't is admirable in theory but no less part of that power structure, more frustrating even perhaps due to how it extends that idea outward from its more conventional reach. The movie is light on Gold takedowns of these cuisines, I don't know if they're as legitimately uncommon as this movie makes it seem, but it makes the one time he does come down on a place, a hagfish restaurant and hagfish as a food itself, ring all the more viciously, all the more crystallize what the issue is here.

To be entirely frank, about halfway through this movie, as this sense was bubbling up within me, I had a little bit of an identity crisis of sorts. I mean, what are we doing here if not taking our stab at criticism. I've seen language here exactly as nuanced and complex as anywhere else in film criticism, and likewise ones as invigoratingly matched between digestibility and thought as your Eberts of the world. I've found myself aspiring to both with some frequency, and find a lot of joy in when I feel like I'm making strides in either regard. And then part of the way through this movie I start feeling like my participation in this, trying to get my voice to be a heard one in this world, is all the more engaging in a system where voices like mine are already prioritized plenty as is. Where I'm ultimately at is that I have to be sure to be vigilant to give over the voice I have to people whose writing deserves the attention in the right moments, but it's a hard thing to still be grappling with.

It's distinctly less hard to grapple with here, though. As the movie goes on, it wants to not only have it both ways, but to intimate that Gold's viewpoint is one through which Los Angeles' cultural complexity comes to bear. Indeed, the last section of the film, rather than about Gold himself, is about the ways he's experienced the diversity Los Angeles has on offer. Awesome, a great topic to make a movie about; even just the food of Los Angeles would provide a fascinating microcosm for such a subject. If that's what you want to make the movie about, though, make the movie about it. Don't make yet another movie that exists to memorialize the way some white person filters it.

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