Men at Lunch, a documentary film touring the United States, is intriguing for many reasons. The film, which debuted at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, seeks answers to the mystery surrounding an iconic American photograph. Why Connemara-based Sónta Films tackled what seems a quintessentially American cultural icon is part of the film’s hook.
Taken in 1932, the photograph, titled “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper,” captures 11 ironworkers during their lunch break while constructing Rockefeller Center’s tallest building, the RCA Building. Perched 800 feet above the ground, the men sit on a narrow steel beam with Manhattan skyscrapers, Central Park and the Hudson River far below serving as the background. There are no safety nets, no safety harnesses, no hat hats – not that a hard hat would do much good if one were to fall from that height. Rockefeller Center Archivist Christine Roussel calls the men in the photograph “daredevil construction workers” and those who took their pictures “absolutely mad photographers.”
The image shows what makes America great: ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It is that can-do spirit that defiantly shouts we will build a magnificent edifice despite the Great Depression. In those ironworkers eyes, we see the pride of people who build things well and the courage that propels immigrants to our shores.
“It was a period in which… the demographic DNA of a non-Yankee America was being put together,” says filmmaker Ric Burns. “This was the moment when America ceased being the America of the Mayflower and became instead the America of Ellis Island.”
But one look at the photograph raises more questions than it answers. What’s really going on here? Who are these men? Why would they put themselves at such great risk in order to earn a paycheck? What are their personal stories that brought them to that beam? Where did they come from? What about those who perished in this line of work? It is in the pondering of these questions that one finds the true beauty of the photograph.
“To make a really great photograph or a really extraordinary photograph, it doesn’t have to be perfect,” says photographer Joe Woolhead. “It has to have that vibrancy that urgency, that drama within the stillness of the image, and that’s what this photograph has.”
And there are other questions. What risk did the photographer take in getting the shot? Was it a fake? How could the identities of both the subjects and the photographer of an image so well recognized by so many Americans remain unknown?
Director Seán Ó Cualáin and brother Eamonn, the film’s producer, set out to answer these questions, and in so doing create a beautiful piece of art. Ó Cualáin weaves together stunning photography, lyrical prose, wonderful archival footage, and lively music evocative of the times with intelligent, passionate and thought provoking interviews into sixty-six minutes of viewing pleasure. Men at Lunch is a film well-worth watching.
By now, you may be wondering why this review is being posted on an Irish-interest website. Without spoiling the story, I’ll just say that Ó Cualáin’s journey of discovery takes him to Shanaglish, a small Galway village, where he just may have solved at least part of the mystery. VLG
Here is the Men at Lunch trailer:
(Note: For those unable to get to a screening, a “Men at Lunch” DVD goes on sale Dec. 3 (http://firstrunfeatures.com/menatlunchdvd.html).