Lot in Sodom: Reading Film Against the Grain

Lot in SodomMany 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 SodomLot 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.

Lot in SodomWhen 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.

Lot in SodomMost 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.

 

Alina Dunbar is a recent graduate of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She combines her nascent techno-historical knowledge of movie-making with her degree in Anthropology and love of fictional narrative to evaluate films. You can find her blogging about books, movies, food, and post-college life at http://literaryvittles.wordpress.com/.

20 thoughts on “Lot in Sodom: Reading Film Against the Grain

  1. Pingback: May 2014 Favourites | FILM GRIMOIRE

  2. Thanks, this was a new discovery for me, and one of the more visually striking I’ve seen from that era. To put out another suggestion (if you haven’t seen it) is “Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages” from about 10 years earlier, which this film kind of resembles. This kind of symbolist style lets itself in for lots of interpretations and yours looks right on.

    • Glad to have introduced you to something new! I have heard about “Haxan,” and have been meaning to watch it. I’m working on the “Carlos” miniseries at the moment, but after that I will seek out “Haxan.” Cheers!

  3. Pingback: Formal Analysis of “Lot in Sodom” up on Curnblog! | Literary Vittles

  4. The surrealists were in revolt against the mundane erotocism inherent in everyday objects. Had ‘Lot in Sodom” a surrealist objective, it surely would have been denounced by the movement. The film was made in 1933, yet is built on the narrative grammar of 1914, with a lot of borrowings from Murnau’s Faust to give it the aegis of experimentalism. As for its relation to the biblical story.It was common for angels to rape humans. The sodom incident was unique in that the reverse was attempted. the only departure from the biblical story is that the angels were giants, and in the film they appear as normal men.

    • Interesting, Bill! In regards to the angels violating humans – is that in the bible? And is that ‘fallen angels’ or angels acting on behalf of God? If the latter, that would be quite surprising.

      • Genesis 6:4

        “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”

        (these angels were acting from their own lust, not on orders from the comandante)

  5. Thank you for sharing this Alina. I had seen Watson and Webber’s Fall of the House of Usher but was totally unfamiliar with this. My guess is that the directors here wouldn’t lose any sleep over a modest rating on an aggregator like IMDB. In fact, given the nature of surrealism, they probably would be more worried if their work was considered accessible enough to be universally loved. Their movies are more narratively coherent than the design pieces by Marcel Duchamp or Fernand Leger, but I think they come from the same mindset of challenging each viewer to draw on personal experiences to create her own reaction. For instance, I cannot dispute any of your interpretations, but despite my status as a non-practicing Jew, I find myself dwelling on the Shylock-like portrayal of Lot — so very different from any other character in the film. That’s both the danger and the beauty of surrealism to me. It gives the audience far more authority in determining meaning.

    • It’s my pleasure! I haven’t seen Fall of the House of Usher, but since it reminds you of this film, I ought to go watch it (I’ve already read the original short story). You make a good point about the directors (probably) not caring how their film is assessed on IMDB, because most surrealist films would never have that type of appeal, anyway. It is nice to think of surrealism as an alternative to the fairly didactic way that some mainstream films tend to impart their meaning.

  6. You’re so right about the futility of reviewers who concern themselves with only the most popular films and most popular opinions. It’s useless. I hated Wolf of Wall Street and I never held back in my review. It turned out to be a popular post, and even people who disagreed figured they did want to see it based on my review. It’s so important to have an original voice to stand out. Great choice of film to explore with such a stance.

  7. Powerful stuff Alina. Some of those images must have been challenging for viewers in the early 1930’s. Some of the film reminded me of the modern dance companies of the 1970’s, or the mime and dance work of Lindsay Kemp. The make-up on the older men called to mind the racist films of Germany during the Nazi years. It is all happening around this story that we all sort-of know from The Bible.
    Reading your review again, after watching the film through, I have to say that you have delivered a near-perfect appraisal. As for ratings, the less said the better.
    Best wishes from England, Pete.

  8. Wild stuff. Alina, this is a very fine review that takes into account a great many perspectives I–not surprisingly!–didn’t think of. Not sure why it got such a low rating on IMDB–rating it traditionally is beside the point. Some great, surreal imagery here; it even reminded me a bit of the production I saw recently of Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man! in terms of taking a religious subject and turning it inside out. Nice job.

    • Many thanks! I should challenge myself to do more reviews in this style — it’s very easy for me to sit in a theater and watch a movie and forget that the “camera” is even there. I haven’t seen Uriel Acosta, but it sounds intriguing!

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