This is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse self, Semaj,
about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is a place where
James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke. James
loves going to the movies and talking about them, but a one-sided take
on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As someone in
the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he were to
review his peers, because unlike the book industry — where writers
review other writer’s books — the film industry is highly collaborative,
and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James
(and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking
about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James
is me, and Semaj is the other side of me. —James Franco
James: This is a documentary about the food guy, Jonathan Gold.
Semaj: What’s his deal?
James: He’s the food critic for the Los Angeles Times — and the only food critic to ever win the Pulitzer Prize for food criticism.
James: Yeah, maybe. They both cover small, out-of-the-way places, like food trucks and such, but Jonathan Gold seems nicer than the Oliver Platt dude.
Semaj: Well, Gold seems to have a mission. He wants to find and support small, authentic ethnic restaurants all over Los Angeles. Hole in the wall places that depend on the specific recipes of their home countries.
James: That’s what the doc really hammers home: That food appreciation is more than eating good tasting food; it’s about understanding other cultures.
Semaj: Yeah, that experiencing food from different places is almost like watching a documentary about that place.
James: Do you believe that?
Semaj: When I go to a foreign country how do I try to absorb its culture? I go to theater, I go to museums, I experience the nightlife and I eat the food. The food is maybe the most important: It’s where I meet the culture on the most basic level. Like clothes, food is something we engage with every day.
James: So Jonathan Gold is a synthesizer of the vast diversity in Los Angeles through one of the city’s most distinctive aspects: Its cuisine.
Semaj: So what’s up with food criticism? Why did this guy win a Pulitzer?
James: Let’s digress for a second. When I went back to school after acting for eight years…
Semaj: Yeah, I know all about it, I was there.
James: Okay, so you know. I had done “Freaks and Geeks,” and “James Dean,” and “Spider-Man,” but I was unsatisfied.
Semaj: There’s a funny line in Paula Fox’s book “Desperate Characters” about a guy who’s unhappy with his profession, and that he’s like an actress who announces to the world that she’s going to study philosophy at U.C.L.A. That’s just like you.
James: Yeah, except that I didn’t announce it, I just did it, because I was unhappy with my profession.
Semaj: Okay, anyway, you went back to school.
James: Well, when I was doing “Spider-Man 3,” I didn’t just reenroll with a full course load. I started with classes at UCLA Extension, so I could go at night. There were only certain classes that could be used for credit towards my degree, and one was a class on food literature. We read Anthony Bordain’s book, “Kitchen Confidential.”
Semaj: He’s like the rock star of chefs.
James: And we read “Heartburn” by the late Nora Ephron.
Semaj: Oh, yeah, the book about her marriage to Carl Bernstein of Deep Throat fame (Watergate, not Lovelace).
James: His son interviewed me for the New York Times.
Semaj: That’s right! He intimated that you were having a relationship with Scott Haze.
James: Deep Throat indeed.
Semaj: What else did you read?
James: The best thing we read was a book of review/essays by Calvin Trilling. He was the man.
Semaj: Well, he was Gold’s mentor. Trilling is the one who decided to take food criticism out of the fancy French restaurants, and to find the best small restaurants that were serving authentic local dishes. Although I think Trilling loved barbeque more than anything.
James: Trilling is in “City of Gold
.” Gold gives him credit for starting him on his food-writing career.
Semaj: What did Gold do before?
James: Well, he was a Bruin at UCLA, like me. He was a music and art major, he played classical cello. That’s where he started writing about art.
Semaj: In the film, he gives a commencement speech at UCLA. By the way, that’s a little hint that you should start writing your speech for Cornell this year. That’s a big one.
James: I know, dude. I will.
Semaj: You gonna try to go all DFW? Two fish…
James: No, dude, just gonna keep it simple.
Semaj: Anyway, I love the way he explains how he started writing about form in art and intangible sensations in music, which led to his writing about food, describing taste and the experience of eating, and the artistry behind the food that creates those sensation.
James: Gold was a music critic before he wrote about food.
Semaj: He wrote the Rolling Stone cover story on Dr. Dre back in the days of The Chronic.
James: The Chronic was the fucking shit.
Semaj: Yeah, Gold talks about all you little white boys in the suburbs who listened to that album and started talking about bitches, hoes and G thangs.
James: I wasn’t that bad. But I hand it to Gold. He looks like a guy that stays in his room all day playing “World of Warcraft,” but he’s down.
Semaj: Yeah, he kind of looks like he should be teaching potions at Hogwarts.
James: But he’s super hip to the L.A. scene. And he wrote about Dre and Snoop before almost anyone.
Semaj: It’s weird to hear about Suge Knight in that article before Death Row split up.
James: And to hear Dre dis the N.W.A. record “Straight Outta Compton.” He says he doesn’t like it and that he knocked it off in six weeks just so they would have something to perform.
Semaj: Well, maybe that was how he felt then. He had just split with Ruthless records, and he was probably still pissed. I’m sure he likes the album now. It’s a classic.
James: And the film is fucking awesome.
Semaj: No shit. They got RO-double B-ED at the Oscars! Should have been up there as a best picture nominee.
James: But no one got robbed more than my man Idris Elba for his pitch-perfect performance in “Beasts of No Nation.”
Semaj: Everyone knows that. He won TWO SAG awards.
James: Anyway, what we’re left with at the end of “City of Gold” is a hope for connection. A prayer for Los Angeles to appreciate its diversity.