If you want to meet some idiosyncratic and fascinating characters, two films that just opened in Manhattan should do the trick. “City of Gold” introduces us to the L.A. Times food writer and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, an oddly absorbing expert on all things Angeleno. I had never heard of Gold before seeing this documentary, but he is renowned in the culinary world. Gold has won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism (never before given to a food writer) and several James Beard awards for magazine writing and restaurant reviews.
A large, lumpy man with the stringy long hair of a former hippie, Gold has a soft voice and a diffident manner. The camera follows him as he drives around L.A. in a beat-up green pickup, stopping at what seems to be an endless number of taco trucks. What makes Gold a different kind of restaurant reviewer is that he spends most of his time eating at mom-and-pop ethnic holes in the wall or–since it’s Los Angeles–strip-mall storefronts. Director Laura Gabbert ties these stops to Gold’s “mapping” of the cultural communities of Los Angeles. I’m not sure that her attempt works that well; the impression I took away was of a collection of diffuse immigrant neighborhoods. Kind of like Queens but with way more highways. How these neighborhoods are linked to make one city remained fuzzy. Still, it’s a lot of fun to follow Gold into Mexican, Ethiopian, Chinese, and Korean restaurants and see what he’s eating. He seems willing to try anything, the hotter, the better.
Gold grew up in a liberal, cultured Jewish family. His father was a probation officer who always wanted to be a professor of English. There must be a deeper story there, but Gabbert doesn’t pursue it. Gold makes the intriguing comment that the deli Jewish families patronized when he was a kid indicated their socio-economic status. That is the sort of insight that he brings to his writing about restaurants.
Gabbert includes a bunch of talking heads to attest to Gold’s great influence in the L.A. food scene. A good review has launched several small restaurants and saved others from ruin. He is a champion of everyday food, the sort celebrated by Calvin Trillin, one of his mentors. I’ve enjoyed reading Trillin for years, so that connection helped me make sense of Gold, who is part of the movement to democratize food writing and eating. Mexican and Thai street food deserve as much attention and respect as the dishes prepared in a Michelin-starred French restaurant. The movie has a leisurely, stop-and-go feel, rather like driving in L.A., but it’s a fun ride and it will make you want to go and eat afterward.
“Marguerite” Hits Her High Note
Xavvier Giannoli’s charming “Marguerite” is loosely based on the story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a wealthy American woman in the 1940s who was convinced she could sing opera. Giannoli moves the tale to France and sets it soon after the end of World War I. Baroness Marguerite Dumont is hosting a fundraiser at her chateau to benefit war orphans. All the local swells from the music society are there. After several pieces by professional musicians, Marguerite comes out to sing her aria. Her voice is shockingly off key; her screeching is not unlike that of the peacocks that wander the grounds. The audience, however, applauds politely. They have heard her before. A sweet, kind woman, Marguerite seems entirely unaware of how terrible a singer she really is, but her husband, the baron, is not. He may have given her his title, he grouses, but he doesn’t have to give her any respect.
Giannoli has structured the film like a fable or an opera, with separate chapters or acts. When a young, cynical journalist writes what could be interpreted as a favorable review, Marguerite is thrilled and reads the column out to all the servants in the house. She goes to thank the young man and falls in with his crowd of revolutionary nihilists. They think she’s a hoot, and she thinks they are adorably naughty youngsters. From this experience, Marguerite decides to prepare for her first public concert and hires a washed up opera singer as a teacher. She works very hard but the outcome is foregone. She’s dreadful.
What keeps this film from becoming a sour and nasty exercise in condescension (despite the Marx Brothers Margaret Dumont reference) is the emotional generosity of Catherine Frot’s performance as Marguerite and that of Andre Marcon as her husband Georges Dumont. Frot gives Marguerite so much warmth and poignancy that it’s not possible to look at her as a freak. She is a woman who desperately wants her husband’s love and attention and has chosen an unfortunate way to claim it. Marcon also brings humanity to his role as the embarrassed and resentful baron. He is caught between the expectations of his social peers and the needs of a wife whom he cannot understand.
The movie is crammed with outrageous characters, including a bearded lady and the divo Marguerite hires as a teacher, but the most compelling is the butler who photographs the baroness in her various opera costumes. This somber man functions almost like a one-man Greek chorus, chronicling the action and stepping in to save the day at times. Giannoli has made a wonderful film with great wit and compassion about our need for art to make some sense of the lives we lead.