Lot in Sodom (1933)

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*. This film is another “avant-garde” effort by the team of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, whose The Fall of the House of Usher I’ve commented on previously. I’m not sure who the main creative force was behind the camera.
*. Visually, it’s very much in the same mode as Usher, especially with the (over)use of the kaledoscopic effect of shooting through a prism to generate multiple images of the same subject at odd angles to one another.
*. I don’t know why Watson and Webber were so fond of this effect. It rarely works, by which I mean it’s usually just confusing and distracting without being expressive of much of anything (except more confusion). You’d think they would have seen that. And yet five years after Usher their filmmaking hadn’t advanced a bit.
*. There are some nice things to say about Lot in Sodom. I like the way Sodom is introduced through an ominous ring of smoke and flames, for example. But what makes this particular film such a curiosity is its treatment of homosexuality.
*. It helps to know the Biblical story of the wicked cities of the plain. (Indeed, as with The Fall of the House of Usher, you pretty much have to know the source to understand the film. Watson and Webber were not storytellers.) And the Bible’s message is unambiguous about homosexuality being a grievous sin that fully deserves a cleansing by fire and brimstone.
*. That’s the way it could have played here, and perhaps how you’d expect it to play given this was 1933. But it’s not. The gay young men we see gracefully jumping about nearly (or even wholly) nude don’t seem a bunch of sinful degenerates but rather a troupe of beautiful dancers expressing themselves naturally. I don’t think they’re meant to be seductive, but they aren’t embodiments of evil either.
*. So in this telling the ultimate monitory tale of moral judgment is surprisingly non-judgmental. Yes, Sodom burns at the end, much as the House of Usher collapses into the tarn. But there’s no sense of catharsis, of a just vengeance being meted out by an angry god.
*. In fact, the most physically unflattering portrait in the film is of Lot, a flabby, stock Jew. He even comes across as a bit vile in offering his daughter up to the gay crowd at his door.
*. Can you say it’s a dishonest or misleading presentation of the Biblical story? It’s all there, even quoting chapter and verse in the intertitles. But the traditional moral message is undercut by the film’s sympathetic eye for the devil.

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