by Gary Meyer
The number of food films being made should not come as a surprise. PBS started the trend of cooking shows long ago and is still a leader in them, but now we have the Food Network, Cooking Channel, Food Matters TV and more offering 24 hours a day of programing about things to eat. Movies with food themes have spanned the history of cinema, but it wasn’t until Babette’s Feast , Like Water For Chocolate , Tampopo , Big Night and others became box office successes that we started to see a genre develop. And the number of documentaries about food has exploded.
The 58th San Francisco International Film Festival has a terrific selection, and EatDrinkFilms is proud to be co-presenting two of the most exciting movies, City of Gold and Chef’s Table .
City of Gold is Laura Gabbert’s terrifically entertaining and revealing documentary about the Los Angeles Times’ head food critic, Jonathan Gold, who is happier discovering strip malls filled with ethnic eating joints an hour from Los Angeles than reviewing the fancy hottest dining spots in town. He does both, and we go with him. Gold’s writing is accessible, while conveying his passion for the wonderful things he discovers with each review that is bound to be a joyful learning experience for the adventurous reader/eater. After graduating from UCLA, he set out to eat his way through every place on the 15 miles of Pico Boulevard, and got a full education in Latin American food.
Before writing for the LA Weekly and then the Times , Gold wrote about about music and was a cellist in a punk band (while retaining his love for classical music). This aspect of Gabbert’s film offers valuable insight into the man. But eating was what he wanted to spend his time doing, learning from the chefs whose creations he enjoyed. Places like the Thai restaurant Jitlada that have become popular from his coverage—there, co-owner Jazz Singsanong greets every customer as if they were an old friend and then proceeds to bring a feast. Or Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant in the heart of Koreatown that offers multiple memorable moles. Co-owner Bricia Lopez says, “One day my dad walked in and says, ‘Where did all these white people come from?'” On my recent lunch there I was one of two non-Latinos. We all ate well.
Watch a clip from City of Gold here: http://www.indiewire.com/embed/player.jsp?videoId=0000014b-1781-debb-afef-9791e15d0000&width=480
Gold is also very funny. “You could take notes when you’re having sex, too, but you’d sort of be missing out on something,” is how he explains why he does not take notes while eating. Taking notes might also blow his cover. Obviously, after this movie, he can’t retain his anonymity when reviewing, but he can try to catch the restaurants off-guard. Joking about his physical size and talking about the burner phones he uses to make reservations so restaurants do not know he is coming, Gold quips ”It’s the fat man’s version of The Bourne Identity .”
At one of those places most of us would never find without a food writers’ guidance—Night + Market Song in Silver Lake—Gold says of the Thai blood soup, “It’s really off-putting, but when people eat it, it brings them to a place that they probably wouldn’t have gone if they’d just gone there and had a plate of noodles.”
And this is why he is such a valuable writer, even if we live in Northern California. City of Gold is also a love letter to Los Angeles that makes it a place many San Francisco chauvinists could rationalize visiting. Near the end of the film, Gold reads an essay about Los Angeles that I found powerful. I asked him if I could have a copy of it, and he wrote this:
“I’d gone to the reading, put on by the quarterly Slake, expecting to read an essay I’d written about a Zubaran still life, but my wife persuaded me to read this instead. I’d actually forgotten that the film crew had even been there!”
Spoiler alert: You might wait to read this piece by Jonathan Gold until after you hear his reading in City of Gold.
Take a look here at Jonathan Gold’s 101 favorite restaurants.
Chef’s Table is a new Netflix series from the creator of Jiro Dreams of Sushi , David Gelb. The show has not yet been seen and the festival will premiere two of the six shows. San Francisco Film Society Executive Director Noah Cowan writes, “Gelb has teamed with exceptional directors to create portraits of radical food artists around the world. Each episode delights in lovingly capturing exceptional dishes spiritually connected to unusual terroir and obsessively presented within highly bespoke environments. In the two segments presented here, Argentine master of open-fire cooking Francis Mallmann rules over his El Restaurante Patagonia Sur in Buenos Aires, Argentina with large-scale outdoor scorchings of behemoths, while lord of winter Magnus Nilsson, bundled into his far-Northern Swedish sensation Fäviken, brings forth Nordic magic from local meat and fish with ancient curing techniques and recherché roots and berries.”
The sophomore feature from writer-director Alice Rohrwacher, The Wonders came to Cannes dangerously overhyped (as the only Competition film directed by a woman). I tried to avoid the media coverage, and am glad I did, because the film was a wonderful surprise. An Italian bee-keeping family is struggling, as are their farming neighbors. The stubborn father refuses to participate in a TV competition for local products but his 14-year-old daughter, the center of the movie, enters them anyway and this becomes the focus of the last third of the film. It is funny, magical, satirical, and surreal—I was taken by it and think it will be one of the festival discoveries.
In 2000, Bay Area documentary legend Les Blank and co-filmmaker Gina Leibrecht visited master filmmaker Ricky Leacock at his farm in Normandy France. Leacock was a terrific storyteller and the two shared their knowledge, history and humor while cooking and eating, another shared passion. The result is How to Smell a Rose: A Visit with Ricky Leacock in Normandy , a joyous visit for all of us and a wonderful way to remember two filmmakers who have left behind a fantastic legacy in their work.
Very different from the aforementioned films is All of Me , a powerful and inspirational nonfiction work about two sisters in central Mexico who waited with shopping bags for trains carrying illegal immigrants. In reply to cries of “Madre, we are hungry,” they threw milk and bread to the travelers. This inspired a group of women to start “Las Patronas” and every day since 1995 they have proved provisions for thousands of migrants passing through their village of La Patrona. They cook simple lunches on charcoal fires and we hear them talk about what motivates them. The ingredients are donated by local businesses and those sympathetic to the plight of those traveling in hopes of a better life.
Gary Meyer co-founded Landmark Theatres in 1975, the first national arthouse chain in the U.S. focused on creative marketing strategies to build loyal audiences for non-Hollywood fare. After selling Landmark, he consulted on projects for Sundance Cinemas and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas, created the Dockers Classically Independent Film Festival and Tube Film Festival for the X Games, and resurrected the 1926 Balboa Theatre in San Francisco. Meyer joined the Telluride Film Festival in 1998, becoming a Festival Co-Director in 2007. Meyer also founded the online magazine, EatDrinkFilms.com in 2014, with the EatDrinkFilms Festival to tour nationally in 2015.