An all-new Pop Culture Beast is coming!

An all-new Pop Culture Beast is coming!
Pardon our dust!

Pop Culture Beast proudly supports The Trevor Project

Pop Culture Beast proudly supports The Trevor Project
Please consider doing the same.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

DVD Review: Men At Lunch

Men At Lunch is a documentary about a famous photograph taken in New York in 1932 during the construction of Rockefeller Plaza. The photograph, “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper,” depicts eleven ironworkers seated side by side on a beam, eating lunch, eight hundred feet over the street.

Interestingly, the film opens with several other famous photographs taken in New York, with some narration about the city itself, setting up that New York is not a city famous for one moment, but a place that is constantly bursting with energy and movement. The narrator then tells us: “One captures the spirit of the city like no other, and yet it remains the most mysterious of them all, its heroes unknown, its authenticity questioned, its story untold.” And that is when we see the photo that is the subject of the film.

The photo first appeared in the Sunday supplement of the New York Herald Tribune on October 2, 1932. The documentary does a good job of setting the scene of the city at that time – it being Indian summer with temperatures in the high seventies, and unemployment at twenty-four percent.

The film features several interviews, one of the most interesting being with Christine Roussel, an archivist at Rockefeller Center Archives. She talks about the black books full of photographs going back to the earliest stages of construction, and yes, we’re treated to some of those incredible black and white images.

Another section for me that really stands out is the footage of the secure underground facility housing the Corbis Collection of photographs. Twenty million images are stored there, including “Lunch Atop A Skyscraper.” They have there what Ken Johnston (director of photography, historical) believes is the original negative.

Men At Lunch is a sort of love letter to the city of New York itself, and to the immigrants that built it (and continue to build it). The film also investigates the identity of the photographer as well as the identities of the eleven men. Two of the men have been positively identified, but the more interesting story in this film regards the possible identities of two of the other men, those at either end of the beam.

The film interviews Pat Glynn, who believes that is father is on the far right and his uncle Matty is on the far left. He and his cousin Patrick O’ Shaugnessy (whose father may be the one at the far left) make a fairly convincing case. The film, however, fails to give us the archivists’ take on whether those men are the ones in the photograph.

The film is burdened with some clunky narration, such as this line: “The photograph of the men on the beam is owned by none of us…and all of us.” Lines like that remind me of those hokey filmstrips we had to watch in grammar school. But for the most part, those interviewed are allowed to tell the story.

The folks interviewed give their opinions on what makes this photo such a great photo. We get not only the perspectives of professional photographers, journalists and archivists, but also those of ironworkers, who all say they have the photo hanging in their homes. There is also a brief interview with a New York street vendor who says that photo is his best seller.  For me, it’s the presence of these folks that make the documentary more well-rounded. The dangers of working in construction are also discussed. This line of narration surprised me: “When towers like the Empire State were planned, the developers factored in one dead worker for every ten floors.”

Bonus Material

The DVD contains five short deleted scenes, including some footage during the stock market crash, and more from the interview with photographer Joe Woolhead (who was one of the early photographers on the scene on September 11, 2001). The most interesting of the deleted scenes is the one about the original plans for Rockefeller Center, and their relation to opera.

Men At Lunch was directed by Seán Ó Cualáin. It was released on DVD on December 3, 2013 through First Run Features.

Post a Comment