If you watch Laura Gabbert’s documentary City of Gold, two things are likely to be true as the closing credits roll. You will think of Los Angeles differently than you did before. And you will be very, very hungry.
The filmmaker sets out to paint a cinematic portrait of her adopted hometown as seen through the eyes of Jonathan Gold, the legendary restaurant reviewer who is the only member of his profession to win a Pulitzer Prize for his food writing. While neither Gold nor Los Angeles is on the surface particularly prepossessing (he is heavy-set and jowly with a thinning mane of unkempt hair), Gabbert manages to win audiences over to both of her subjects by tapping into the writer’s near-fanatical devotion to exploring and revealing the intricacies of the city’s cultural mosaic as experienced through its food. She rides shotgun with Gold in his green Dodge pickup on his forays into the far-flung reaches of the megalopolis in search of authentic and tantalizing culinary delights, whether they be Korean tacos from a food truck or Oaxacan moles from an East Los Angeles cenaduría.
Gabbert may seem an unlikely author for such a heartfelt love letter to the City of Angels. A Minnesota native (her father is the founder and CEO of furniture retailer Room & Board), she lived and worked in New York City and San Francisco before somewhat reluctantly deciding to study film at the University of California, Los Angeles.
“I had a lot of resistance moving to Los Angeles to go to film school,” she recalls. “I always thought I would finish school and then move back to San Francisco or New York. But Los Angeles sort of gets under your skin, and I started to really love it.”
Part of what made Gabbert more receptive to Los Angeles’s subtle charms was reading Gold’s Counter Intelligence column in the Los Angeles Times. “It took me out of the west-side neighborhood where I lived during film school, and I started exploring the vast, sprawling city that is Los Angeles,” she explains. “I began to see how interesting and vibrant and beautiful it is in its own weird way. There’s such diversity, and there are just endless possibilities here. It’s like Jonathan says in the film: It’s a place where you can reinvent yourself. And I think there are a lot of people who come here to do that.”
Making a film about a subject whom Gabbert admits intimidated her at first was a significant departure from her last documentary. No Impact Man focused on Michelle Conlin (the filmmaker’s close friend and classmate throughout her years at both the Blake School and Connecticut College) and her husband, Colin Beavan, as they attempted to change their daily life in Manhattan to eliminate any detrimental effects on the environment. “It’s an environmental film that explores environmental issues, but I really think of it as a portrait of a marriage,” Gabbert muses. “You really see what this couple and their family go through as they change their lifestyle.”
Making No Impact Man had an impact on the filmmaker’s own family, as it required frequent travel to New York and time away from her husband and two young daughters. Afterward, Gabbert started looking for a subject closer to home. “I wanted to make a film that was local, so I could go off and shoot for the day and then pick up my kids at school or at least see them for dinner,” she says.
Gabbert’s pursuit of Gold started after she won a dinner with him at an auction to raise money for the school her children and his son attended. At first, he refused to be the subject of a documentary, explaining why he thought it would be a lousy film. “He said it would have no conflict, no narrative arc; he wouldn’t really let me film his family and he wouldn’t want to be on-camera in restaurants,” she recalls. He eventually came around, though, when she convinced him that it wouldn’t be a reality TV–esque treatment but rather an exploration of Los Angeles through the people who make up the city.
Even after Gold signed on to the project, it took him a while to get comfortable with Gabbert filming him — and vice versa. “At a certain point, I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m making a film about a Pulitzer Prize–winning critic,’ and I think it freaked me out,” she says. “I felt a lot of pressure to make sure it really reflected the very substantive way he goes about his work. He really puts so much time into everything he does; he researches everything to death and rewrites and rewrites and rewrites. I felt like the film needed to reflect his depth as a critic — and that was really intimidating and challenging.”
One of Gabbert’s goals in making City of Gold was to show the real Los Angeles, not the city portrayed in pop culture. “People have this idea that Los Angeles is all Beverly Hills and plastic surgery, and it’s not,” she notes. “When I go to Beverly Hills, it feels like a foreign country because the neighborhood I live in is so different. The neighborhood I live in is much more like other neighborhoods in the city, except that it’s probably even more diverse.”
Although Gabbert hopes the film resonates with people all over the country and inspires them to explore the food cultures of their own cities, she acknowledges it has a special appeal for Angelenos: “We get trashed so much as a city that it’s nice to see it in a positive light, to see there’s more depth to it than people give it credit for — that it’s not a wasteland, that there are a lot of really interesting things happening here.”