• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Saturday, September 23, 2017

    Lot in Sodom (1933)

    As I mentioned on Sunday, last week in Leicester was the British Silent Film Festival which this year had a specific focus on the transition from silents to sound. One of the films screened, as part of the Edgar Allan Poe evening, was The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) directed by James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber. As it is, for some time I've been meaning to write up Watson and Webber's later work Lot in Sodom (1933), so it was useful to see their other film for comparison.

    Relatively little material remains about the life and work of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, indeed Webber hasn't even been granted a Wikipedia page. Both men's film careers were short. Aside from these two films together, they also made Tomatoes Another Day (1930) and collaborated on three minor industrial films, but apart they each only made one other film of note, Webber's Rhythm in Light (1935) and Watson's Highlights and Shadows (1938).

    This is enough, however, to count as a significant contribution to the avant garde / early experimental movement of the late twenties and early thirties. Indeed, the film "ran for more than two months in New York, and continued to play in theatres throughout the 1930s and 1940s, becoming in the process probably the most commercially successful avant-garde film of the era" (Horak, 2008: 41). On top of this it's clear to see - with the benefit of hindsight of course - that, for Lot at least they were pioneers in queer cinema in an age when homosexuality was still illegal. Lot's influence on later queer cinema such as Derek Jarman's The Garden (1990), is plain to see.

    As with Usher it's difficult to follow what's going in without prior knowledge of the story, not least because five years after the introduction of talking pictures, Lot in Sodom is still essentially a silent film, available then with atonal music by Louis Siegel and available today with the additional option of an excellent modern soundtrack by Hands of Ruin.

    Both films show a marked similarity of style such as expressionistic sets, superimposed shots, strange camera angles, floating text, kaleidoscopic images and various other experimental techniques. Cuts are often abrubt, and often the connection between the two shots is not immediately obvious. In places the editing is reminiscent of Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera (1929), much of the sets feel like Murnau's Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920). One popular technique is superimposing the same symbolic image onto a shot several times, such as the hammer with which Roderick seals his sister's tomb in Usher arrays of naked torsos here.

    Watson and Webber's film is a loving tribute to two things- an admiration for the human, and predominantly male, form; and a treatise on the formal potential of cinema. The first is hardly revolutionary. the human body has held a fascination for artists since almost as long as art itself. Watson and Webber seemingly took the approach best embodied by Cecil B. DeMille, that of basing a film on a moralistic/biblical story in order to reduce objections to the amount of flesh on display. However, whilst Lot in Sodom ultimately ends with the fiery destruction of it's inhabitants, clearly the filmmakers are rooting for the losing team.

    That impression is underpinned by numerous factors. It's telling, for example that the film is almost halfway through before the angel of the Lord arrives to set the plot in motion. Then there is the contrast between Lot and the Sodomoites, both in terms of looks and of how they are shot. The sodomites are all youthful, dynamic and attractive. In contrast Lot looks like a cross between an Assyrian Bas Relief and an anti-Semitic stereotype. He is comparatively old and unattractive, heavily clothed in contrast to his townspeople and the camera spends far less time lingering on him than it does on his neighbours.

    Furthermore, as Alina Dunbar points out "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." (Dunbar, 2014).

    On top of this, there is also the way that Lot himself seems somewhat conflicted. At one point the film cuts from a shot of Lot in the dark to an intertitle that reads “How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart?”, yet, as Grossman observes Lot "never moves his mouth, in defiance of silent film conventions...the film “speaks” through an intertitle while the character remains totally silent, splitting in a surprising way the cinematic soul" (Grossman, 2014).

    As events come to a head, Lot raises his hands to God in desperation, only for the terrifying answer "withhold not even thy daughter"to come back not as an intertitle, but superimposed over the image. An array of Latin phrases follow in similar fashion, as if floating on the screen their meaning unclear: Non Tacta (untouched), Mulier (woman), Templum Est (the temple).

    Given the most famous element of the story from Genesis, it is no surprise to find that this sense of internal conflict also extends to Lot's wife. Eventually the angel (singular) steps in save the day, rays of light shine from his chest and Lot and his wife and daughter escape, but of course Lot's wife turns to look back and is turned into a pillar of salt. Harries makes the case at length that her retrospection here is the result of her "evident curiosity about, and perhaps even sympathy for, this city; it portrays her backward look as punishment for this sympathy" (Harries, 2007: 45). As she undergoes her metamorphosis images including tormented people and the city's temple are superimposed over her as if to emphasise the point that it is her sympathy for the city that is causing her to change, or perhaps causing her to be punished. As an image it's provocative, challenging and one that only unveils the fullness of its meaning on multiple viewings, so typical of the film itself.

    Dunbar, Alina (2014) "Lot in Sodom: Reading Film Against the Grain", CurnBlog May 16, 2014 - http://curnblog.com/2014/05/16/lot-sodom-reading-film-grain/

    Grossman, Andrew (2014) "Tomatoes Another Day: The Improbable Ideological Subversion of James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber", Bright Lights Film Journal November 28, 2014 - http://brightlightsfilm.com/tomatoes-another-day-improbable-ideological-subversion-james-sibley-watson-melville-webber/

    Harries, Martin (2007) Forgetting Lot's Wife: On Destructive Spectatorship. New York: Fordham University Press.  - The relevant section (p.45-54), including numerous stills, is available via Google Books

    Horak, Jan-Christopher (2008) "A neglected genre: James Sibley Watson’s avant-garde industrial films" in Film History, Volume 20, pp. 35–48, John Libbey Publishing

    See also:
    Fischer, Lucy (1987) "The Films of James Sibley Watson, Jr., and Melville Webber: A Reconsideration" in Millennium Film Journal, Fall/Winter 1987/1988, Issue 19, p.40 - this is available here, but I've not been able to gain access.

    Moore, Marianne (1933) "Lot in Sodom" in Close Up, September 10, 1933, p.318 - archived here. Moore worked with Watson and later wrote about the making of the film.

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