Men at Lunch: The Untold Story of A City’s Legend (First Run Features, NR)

Menatlunch 75Even if you have an endless appetite for documentaries about New York (as I do), watching Men at Lunch can be disappointing because there’s so much speculation backed up by so little proof, and so many topics broached without resolution.

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You’ve almost certainly seen the photograph: eleven Depression-era construction workers sitting casually on a steel beam—eating lunch, chatting, and smoking—their feet dangling over the side as casually as if they were sitting on a park bench rather than a narrow I-beam hundreds of feet above the streets of New York City. The angle of the shot makes the beam appear magically suspended in the air, with Central Park so distant that it seems almost dreamlike.

This photo, taken in 1932, has come to symbolize many things over the years—the strength and fearlessness of the ordinary workingman, the great waves of immigration which brought individuals from far distant countries to work side by side in America, and the optimism that made New York City willing to build new skyscrapers in the face of a crippling worldwide depression.

For all the attention this photo has received, its details remain largely a mystery. Two obvious questions have never been fully addressed—who are these men, and who was the photographer? Men at Lunch: The Untold Story of a City’s Legend, a documentary directed by Seán Ó Cualáin and narrated by Fionnula Flanagan, takes on these questions while also sketching in some cultural and historical background.

Men at Lunch was funded by the Irish TV channel TG4, the Irish Film Board, and the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, so it’s not surprising that the film takes a particular interest in tracking down any Irish roots that can be identified for the workers. Two of them may have well come from a small village in County Galway—based on old photos and family lore—but in fact we’ll probably never know who these men were. (In another context, I was once told that one of the men was a member of the Mohawk tribe, a fact offered as evidence for the fact that Mohawk men often held jobs in construction, and touching on the myth that the Mohawk have no fear of heights, but I don’t know if that identification is any more secure).

Similarly, there is no way to know for sure who took this picture, although the film does establish convincingly, via a trip to the Corbis archives and examination of the original negative, that it’s not a fake. We are also treated to a still of a photographer taking similar photos—he’s even more precariously placed, as he has to stand on a beam while weighted down by his camera and glass negatives, and while focusing his attention on getting his shot rather than keeping his balance.

Even if you have an endless appetite for documentaries about New York (as I do), watching Men at Lunch can be disappointing because there’s so much speculation backed up by so little proof, and so many topics broached without resolution. Still, it’s full of interesting background information—for instance, that one worker was expected to die for every 10 stories of construction—and at 67 minutes won’t take up too much of your time.

Extras on the DVD include short films on the 1929 stock market clash, Rockefeller Center, 9-11, the inspiration for the photo, and Ric Burns commenting on the photo. | Sarah Boslaugh

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