(Part 1 of 2. Be sure to check out the companion review!)

My Hollywood Century project has, I confess, been subjected to some mission drift over the last twenty-odd entries. I described it, at the start, as:
Sometimes it will be a well-loved consensus classic, and sometimes a lost masterpiece. Sometimes an ill-made but important signpost in the course of mainstream cinema history, sometimes a forgotten piece of commercial junk food. Directors from the greatest auteurs to the most ignoble hacks...

There have been a lot of auteurs and signposts ever since the New Hollywood Cinema revved up back in 1967, and not enough hacks making junk food. But now we are at the dawn of the 1990s, a decade in which the American film industry lost its mind a little bit: with pressures from a world cinema that was as commercially aggressive towards North America as it had been since the 1960s, a newly-jazzed up independent scene that had never been so commercially aggressive, and, by the decade's end, the mainstream arrival of the internet and DVD, two technologies that enormously altered the cinema marketplace, there is perhaps no other decade in American film about which it's so hard to get a bead on its personality. It was a decade of the Baby Boomers being uncomfortable with growing old and Generation X finding itself ill-equipped to deal with responsibility, and the pop culture of the age reflects both groups' desperate attempts to retrench and figure out an identity. The decade began with a five-year hangover from the 1980s, and ended with an apparent attempt to regurgitate some weird hybrid of the 1960s and 1970s.

So what better way to commemorate the start of this most utterly confused decade without a soul of its own (there are many, many better ways) than with a feverish explosion of desperate filmmaking where the flop-sweat drops from the screen, and the desire to find any kind of anchor in culture far outweighs things like sanity: with nothing less than the most absolutely fucked-up double feature ever foisted upon cinemas. I would take your hand and guide you back to 16 March, 1990, the day a miracle happened, when two competing films were released, both centering on the short-lived dance craze from Brazil, the lambada. Talk about being hungover from the 1980s.

Better yet, and even more hungover, the films represent a singular moment in the history of the most colorful film producers of the newly-completed decade, Israeli cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whose work as the leaders of the Cannon Group had defined so much of the action cinema of that era, before the legendary B-picture empire dropped into free-fall thanks to the massive failure of some costly ventures in 1987 and '88. Globus stayed with the shattered remains of Cannon, and it was there that he snapped up the rights to name a film Lambada, after a 1989 Portuguese-language track by French pop act Kaoma that had been seen great success in Los Angeles dance clubs. But Golan was faster on the draw at securing the rights to Kaoma's song for his film, The Forbidden Dance. Thus we have one film which could contain "Lambada" but, under the law, make only muted reference to that word in its advertising; the other could be titled after the song but not feature it. It is a fucking glorious candyland world in which we live.

Alphabetically, we begin with Golan's film, the one that made by his 21st Century Film Corporation under the insufficiently watchful eyes of distributor Columbia Pictures, and the film widely regarded as the worse of the two. Which is probably true, but The Forbidden Dance is such a giddy marvel of wrong-headedness that I would never think to call it worse than anything. It's much too fun for that.

The bitterly estranged Go-Go boys, both old hands at the whole "quickie cash-in movie about a dance fad" game - in happier times, they had given the world the most important of all breakdancing double features, Breakin' and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo - engaged in a kind of strange-ass arms race to get their films out as soon as possible. The Forbidden Dance, its story written in L.A. traffic, was prepped in December, 1989, shot in January, and released in March, a feverish turnaround production that rivals the rapid-fire speed of factory filmmaking back in the silent era. And oh my God, does it ever show. The Forbidden Dance has a script - by Roy Langsdon and John Platt, though I feel sorry about accusing them in public - doesn’t rely on clichés, as much as it is an elaborate lacework made of nothing else but clichés, given a personalising touch only in that the character names are original. And this is not, I don’t think, laziness, but raw animalistic desperation: there was no time for thinking about the screenplay, it just had be cranked out at lightning speed, and clichés were all that there was time for. The whole feels unabashedly like a first draft: I can’t imagine that some of the tattered holes in the construction of the story would have survived a good night’s sleep, let alone a thorough re-reading. Even at the level of gaudy message-mongering (and The Forbidden Dance is nothing if not a gaudy message movie), the film loses track of its own content for a huge chunk of the middle, trading in one batch of stereotypes for another, different batch.

The film announces itself, or what it thinks it is, or God knows what, with an aerial shot of what passes, reasonably, as South American jungle, as the peculiarly-punctuated opening title card announces that we are in:
The Amazon:
Mankind is destroying
the rain forest…

Not all mankind, mind you; just white mankind. Brown mankind is busily engaging in a tribal fertility dance of some kind that serves two purposes: 1) to establish that our heroine, a native princess, has an intuitive ability to dance the writhing, sexually evocative moves of the lambada; 2) that director Greydon Clark had only one problem with the depiction of indigenous peoples in cinema as it existed in the ‘20s or so, which is that it wasn’t nearly Othering enough. It’s kind of miraculous, is The Forbidden Dance: a film obsessed to the point of literal dysfunction with attacking the racism of well-off middle-class U.S. whites against Latino Americans that is itself perfectly sanguine about depicting those same Latin Americans with marginally less dignity and respect than was afforded to the Skull Islanders in the original King Kong. The film isn’t even minutes old before it treats us to Sid Haig as a boogedy-boo tribal magician whose only fully audible vocalisations are excited chants on the “ai-yi-yi-yi-yi-yi!” model. And then it turns around and makes its villain an absurdly caricatured bitchy, dried-up middle-aged white lady whose damn near every line includes the phrase “those people”, delivered with the sort of subzero acidity that makes it sound dirtier than all the curse words in English strung in a row.

Anyway, the white people destroying the rain forest are in the employ of Petramco, a multinational oil company. This so offends that native princess, Nisa (Laura Herring), that she receives permission from her father (Ruben Moreno) to travel to Los Angeles under the protection of tribal shaman Joa (Haig), to speak with the chairman of Petramco in person. With unexpected speed, she arrives in the States, raises a ruckus in the Petramco lobby, and is dumped on the street without her identification papers, making it look to all the world like she’s just one more jobless Mexican. And no, The Forbidden Dance doesn’t seem aware that Mexicans are not the same as urban Brazilians are not the same as the isolated tribespeople living deep in the jungle, ethnically, culturally, or linguistically (though since all of the nonwhite characters speak in the same brand of José Jiménez Eenglish, this last one doesn’t matter too much).

Nisa manages to get herself hired by a shrill, unlikable, racist lady (Shannon Farnon), whose unenlightened attitudes about immigrants are so overstated and awful that it’s hard to read it as anything other than comedy. This position doesn’t last very long - one doubts that many of this woman’s maids make it for more than a week or two - but it does serve to introduce Nisa to to the racist lady’s son Jason (Jeff James), who first spies on the lost princess as she expresses herself spiritually in her off-hours, which basically means that she’s fucking the curtains in the servants’ quarters. This convinces Jason that she’s the perfect replacement for his shrill, unlikable, racist girlfriend Ashley (Barbara Brighton) at the local dance contest where all the local kids - or local unemployed college graduates, to judge from the apparent ages of Jason and all his shrill, unlikable, racist friends - are vying to win a contest and appear on the live dance show hosted by Kid Creole and the Coconuts. And oh my God, you guys, Kid Creole and the Coconuts appear IN THE MOVIE! It’s so cool. That Menahem Golan, always willing to shell out to get a real superstar in his movie.

For Nisa, a chance to show up on the television means getting to spread her message about stopping the exploitation of the rain forest to a national audience, but it’s going to take some doing to get there. For one thing, Jason will have to convince the shrill, unlikable, racist people who exclusively populate his world that Nisa has any detectable merits as a human being. For another, Nisa is now working at a whorehouse.

The whorehouse angle keys us in to one of the most distinctive of all traits of The Forbidden Dance: it is fucking filthy. The movie always suggests a sleazy, borderline-pornographic exploitation of the dance trend that was famously (and apocryphally) so sexual that it was banned in Brazil, that was hastily turned into something PG-13 (barely) in the editing room. Hence the constant hovering threat of sexual exploitation and rape, hence the way that the Pure and Innocent and Uncorrupted By Civilisation Nisa proves to be a whiz at the dirtiest dancing ever put to film. I don’t know much about the real lambada, and maybe this is an accurate depiction of it, but I doubt it: while, as they say, all dance is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, the stuff we see in The Forbidden Dance is mostly just dry-humping to music.

Compounding the overwhelmingly sleazy tone of the writing and Clark’s listless direction which adds to the detached, bored pornographer feel to the movie, it’s just horribly put together, at every level. As will happen when you give yourself five minutes to rehearse, shoot, and edit a movie. The acting is vile: Herring, who ultimately would end up at the farthest possible opposite end of the cinematic spectrum 11 years later, when she was the co-lead of Mulholland Dr., plasters on a bright smile and sometimes a little girlish pout to show that she’s angry, and expresses the innocence of a non-industrial savage by chomping down on all her syllables and using an odd, placeless accent. This results in things like her rendering of the word "chairman" as "chare mon", and since she uses the word around two-dozen times in a one-minute speech, we get a lot of time to reflect on the subtleties of her basic inability to deliver lines. This by no means puts her at or near the bottom of pile of a cast in which nobody is able to handle the clumsy, exposition-drunk dialogue that Langsdon and Platt thought they could pass off as a replica of speech, or the awkward, omnipresent, and wholly inauthentic expressions of cartoon racism. There is basically nothing human in The Forbidden Dance: only cardboard boxes which say things like "only my money-induced laziness prevents me from setting fire to all these wetback beaners", carboard boxes which say things like "rain forests are totally important, and I have a pretty smile", and cardboard boxes rubbing their cardboard junk up against other cardboard boxes as Kaoma funks out on the soundtrack. It's a deadly combination of inept political cartooning and fatigued, dirt-poor filmmaking anti-skills, in which only Haig's mesmerisingly awful Looney Tunes witch doctor has any kind of liveliness out of all the blank stares and flubbed line readings throughout the cast. It has my most passionate, enthusiastic recommendation.

To be continued...