Many of the film reviews that circulate in the blogosphere are written by and for laymen. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that (I’m more or less a layman, after all), but every now and then I crave a deeper analysis—specifically, one that takes into account the formal elements of filmmaking. In addition, I often notice that bloggers tend to “test” the validity of their reviews by comparing them to rankings posted on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes. While useful as a yardstick for public opinion, all of this rather incestuous reviewing means that there are a lot of people saying very similar things, often about the same, small set of movies—i.e., the Hollywood blockbusters. If you dare to express your negative opinion of a film whose reception by the general public has been laudatory, you risk offending your readers and watching your follower count drop. But that did not stop me from posting an extremely critical review of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), nor should it stop anyone from saying what she or he really thinks about a film. Film is inherently subjective, and even the most against-the-grain reading is likely to contain some truth.
All of that said, today I’m planning to discuss Lot in Sodom (1933), an excellent black-and-white avant-garde film that nonetheless holds a rather measly rating of 6.5 on IMDB. Two years ago for a film class, I wrote a seven (!) page review of this 28-minute film. Here is a condensed version of that analysis. You’ll also find the complete film at the bottom of this page for your reference.
Lot in Sodom: Subversive Cinematography & Ambiguous Characterisation
Film has long been used as a medium to explore alternate modes of gender and sexuality. Characterised by high-contrast lighting, kaleidoscopic editing, and androgynous makeup and dress, Lot in Sodom, through the use of formal and stylistic choices, subverts the traditional reading of the Biblical tale. Lot represents the normative sexual order and argues against homosexual tendencies, yet in the film the strength of Lot’s message—and Lot himself—is continuously undermined. The film’s stylistic patterns—from the multiplicity of superimpositions, to the frequent dissolves, to the variations in the depth-of-field—challenge character stereotypes, question the hierarchy of Angels-versus-Sodomites, and invite a new interpretation of the supposedly irrefutable moral codes presented in the Old Testament.
Swirling, circling images dominate the first few minutes of the film as spinning, incorporeal Sodomites, in minimal clothing and dark, androgynous makeup, grapple with each other. Bodies—and body parts—are everywhere: pairs of legs chase torsos, disembodied heads float across the screen. The camera exaggerates the movement by replaying images of Sodomites crawling, grabbing, fighting, kissing, leaping, and falling in a seemingly continuous loop by superimposing copies of the same image onto one another within the same frame. As the Sodomites are trapped in their continual pursuit of flesh, so, too is the viewer ensnared by the hallucinatory edits and the lascivious framing of bodies.
When the Angels appear on the screen, at first they seem no different from the Sodomites—apart from the low-angle shot which emphasises their authority. Similarly adorned in dramatic makeup and wigs, with bare chests and thin frames, the Angels look remarkably like the sinful Sodomites below, which serves to minimise the delineation between the two groups. From Heaven, the Angels bend their necks and torsos toward Sodom, transfixed by what is taking place below them. Many wear mixed expressions, and it is not clear that they condemn the Sodomites’ actions; rather, one might argue that the Angels are jealous of the sensual abandon in which the Sodomites live. A slow dissolve ensues as sleeping Sodomites gradually replace the Angels watching them. This transition further complicates the relationship between the Angels and the Sodomites, tacitly suggesting that the hierarchy between the two groups is not as strict as the Bible story suggests.
When Lot finally appears—six minutes into this relatively short film—what the viewer sees first is actually Lot’s shadow cast upon the wall. By capturing both Lot and his shadow in the same frame, the camera makes Lot appear small and vulnerable, especially within such a long shot. Moreover, in contrast to the Angels and the Sodomites, who are nearly always featured in either medium or full-shots, Lot is frequently cast on either the right or the left side of the frame, in such as way as to suggest that he does not have the power to fill the screen by himself. Only later, when delivering his ineffective message to the Sodomites about the glories of the female form, the wonder and honour that is childbirth, and the sinfulness of homosexual desire, is Lot granted the privilege of a close-up. But in that case, the close-up works to emphasise Lot’s distress and to capture his facial expressions—expressions that clearly betray his lust for the female body. In other words, Lot’s instincts are no less carnal than those of the Sodomites. On the whole, the camera frames Lot in such a way as to undermine his authority and, ultimately, the authority of the moral message he delivers to the Sodomites.
Most problematic of all, perhaps, is the portrayal of the beautiful Angel who condemns Sodom and destroys it through fire. When the Angel appears to Lot in his corporeal form, he is at once menacing and imposing. As Lot and the Angel walk through the streets of Sodom, a Sodomite approaches the Angel and starts to speak with him. In a shot lasting several seconds, the camera focuses on the Sodomite’s face as the he cursorily glances upward and retreats, looking horrified. The camera cuts to a low-angle, close-up of the Angel’s sculpted face, supposedly from the point of view of the Sodomite. Of particular interest is the Angel’s expression: one would expect that, faced with a Sodomite, the Angel would look utterly disgusted. Though he will later destroy Sodom, in this particular moment—the brief three-second close-up of the Angel, featuring dissolves on both ends of the shot—the Angel appears sympathetic to and possibly aroused by the Sodomite who has approached him. The use of the dissolves at either end of the shot strengthens the argument that even the Angel is not completely separate from the Sodomites, given the way in which dissolves have been used to complicate seemingly definitive moral distinctions among the other characters throughout the film.
In sum, Lot in Sodom conflates the morality of the characters in the Biblical story through the use of dissolves, framing styles, makeup and clothing; through the emphasis on different forms of movement; and through the range of editing techniques used throughout the film. On the whole, the Sodomites are beautiful and free in movement; Lot is an uninspiring, slow-moving and out-of-touch old man; and the Angel better resembles a beautiful demon from hell than an idyllic saviour from heaven. Through formal and stylistic choices that present these alternate characterisations, Lot in Sodom thoroughly distorts and subverts the original, simplistic moral message presented in the Old Testament.