It has been a long time coming, but we find ourselves now at the end of the Dim the House Lights 1989 Tournament of Films. Many vicious battles were fought on the road here, and of an initial slate of twelve movies, only two have made it to the end. In the red corner, a literal cultural juggernaut, one of the most popular and beloved movies of 1989, and the number 1 seed in the tournament, Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In the blue corner, a decades-old cult favorite, among the boldest and most shocking visions in contemporary Japanese cinema, and this tournament’s 9-seed, Shinya Tsukamoto’s Tetsuo: The Iron Man. We brought the whole DtHL crew back for the finals, and here’s how it’ll work: each writer will pick the movie they feel should win the crown, and the film with the most votes will be dubbed the victor. And now, for the play-by-play…
I don’t feel any real hesitation in declaring Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade runner-up here. I do not mean this as an insult to Last Crusade; it’s a rip-roaring good time of the kind few people make as well as Spielberg. It’s funny, it’s exciting, it’s well paced, well acted, well filmed, and well done. But while being the third best Indiana Jones movie (Temple of Doom apologist here) is an awful good achievement, it can’t help but feel anemic in comparison to Tetsuo: The Iron Man, one of the most intense, bracing, incredible films I’ve ever seen. Tetsuo is so much more than the grungy one-note freak-out its detractors pin it as; it’s a nihilistic film without limits, ecstatic in its hatred and gleeful despondency, prophetic and ugly and absolutely unprecedented in its seething, searing exegesis of The Way We Live Now (which is, of course, The Way We’ve Lived Always, but with more robo-dick drills). I saw it first in high school, and it shook me deep down to my heart, giving a voice to sensations I could barely comprehend let alone describe in the astounding, obscene gutter-poetry of Tetsuo’s lo-fi universe. Its extremity is a means to an end, a way of pushing through desensitization through absolute sensory overload, paving a road straight to emotional resonance. It’s vile, it’s sickening, it’s detestable, it’s evil, it’s amoral perversity in its purest form, and it’s a damn fun ride to boot. All glory to the new flesh. IND 0:1 TET
Who among us can say they’re comfortable choosing between this two movies? A lot of people, probably, including Michelle, who just above me pushed The Last Crusade under a bus without a moment of hesitation. And that’s cool. But I wonder: should I declare Metallic Phallic Objects Galore or Indy Meets Hitler the true winner of the night? With a lot of hesitation, I lean to Tetsuo: The Iron Man. There’s actually not a doubt in my mind that I should declare this the victor here because, all things said, it’s the best movie I’ve written about in this entire tournament (and having just written about both these films, I find myself at a loss for more words). Last Crusade is, realistically, a movie I always forget about years after I watch it. When I sat down to view it this time around, I found myself almost amazed at the fact that there was an entire sequence with River Phoenix at the very start, even though I’d seen it just under three years ago (but this might be attributable to my awful memory). Tetsuo, sure, I can’t remember every beat, but it’s so distinct and original and fascinating that it’s impossible to forget the imagery that comes with it. It’s not a perfect film, by any means, and it’s not the most accessible (IJATLC would take the cake there), but it’s become a cult favorite over the years because of how great, grimy, and wild it is, and rightfully so. IND 0:2 TET
Tetsuo: The Iron Man or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? Do you like your popcorn salty or sweet? If you put a gun to my head and asked me to pick between these two movies in a heartbeat chances are you’d be looking at my brains splattered on the wall. I’ve thought about this for a few days now. How can you choose a victor between two opponents that represent the thrills of cinema and film craftsmanship in totally different ways? Shinya Tsukamoto is a true outsider; making whacked-out, fucked-up, yet highly singular and visceral works in Japan while Steven Spielberg took the studio system apart from the inside and, for better or worse, retooled it to work for him and millions of adoring moviegoers. Spielberg is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time while Tsukamoto is not. I feel close and connected to so many of Spielberg’s movies and the story of Indiana Jones, his father and a ragtag crew of heroes going after the Holy Grail is a story I’ve enjoyed since I was nine years old. Yet it is my least favorite of the original Jones trilogy. I’ve lived with Tetsuo in my brain for four or five years now and it’s sights and sounds still send sparks through my imagination. Revisiting it again for this tournament only made me realize how thankful that a film like this exists in our cruel little world. It reminds me of the possibilities of cinema and storytelling in ways The Last Crusade does not. So here I am, sat with my head blown open and my brain matter sliding down the wall. This image is in high-contrast black and white and the remains of my brain seem to form a word. Squint harshly and you can just about make it out. It says… Tetsuo. IND 0:3 TET
The first Indiana Jones movie I saw was The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. In a way, I was the ideal audience for that film because I had zero cultural baggage to bring with me to the screening. But as a large-scale riff on old sci-fi cheapies? I mean, it’s no Stargate, but it’s nowhere near as bad as it’s made out to be. I bring this up because at their core, every entry in the Indiana Jones Quadrology is composed of fun, goofy riffs on early- to mid-20th century movie tropes. Last Crusade, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, is a serial-style swashbuckling adventure film, and a great one at that, where our square-jawed chaotic-good American hero whips a healthy amount of Nazi ass. The filmmaking craft and stunt work on display are both impeccable, but as with the previously-ousted Batman, the creators of Last Crusade had access to incredible amounts of resources to pull off their vision. Tetsuo: The Iron Man has remarkable craft and wonderful practical effects as well, but of a distinctly cheaper, grungier stripe. The end result is a mangled, circuit-bent cry for reprieve from work, sex, societal interaction, and metropolitan living. So while both films in their own ways represent the near-pinnacle of their respective idioms, I have to give the edge here to Tetsuo because of the raw power of its sneering, anti-stylish phallo-industrial gutter-punk vision. Something this feral and volatile deserves to be championed and celebrated. IND 0:4 TET
The Last Crusade is a film where Harrison Ford lays waste to Nazis left and right. It’s a film where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery, as the doctors Jones, trade barbs while bound to one another’s chairs in a burning room. It’s a movie where Sean Connery calls Nazis “the shlime of humanity.” It’s nothing if not a rollicking adventure, a romp; it’s a film where the heroes ride off on horseback into the sunset. Tetsuo: the Iron Man ends with two once-men fusing into a phallic coagulation of living metal and barreling down the streets of Japan on a mission to transform the world into a wasteland of scrap metal, the prophets of an industrial death cult.
Indiana Jones is a film which grows sentimental looking back upon glory days, both the robust adventurism of America on the cusp of the second World War as well as the cinematic legacy of the first two films of the series; Tetsuo is a film which, from the vantage of the Japanese economic crash of 1989, looks only forward into a grim and uncertain future, bereft of sentiment.
When I was an incorrigible young daydreamer sick with longing for adventure, I had Indiana Jones to both soothe and fuel my cravings. I wondered if nostalgia, personal sentiment, would be the deciding factor in the final match-up; it was not. I give the upper hand to Tetsuo because it was made with a frantic, indelible urgency; because in turning the contraptions of industry into a supernatural disease—vile, grotesquely human machinery serving no purpose but to suffocate its host—it confronts the irrationality of ceaseless capitalistic expansion; because for all its crudeness, Tetsuo stands today as a deft critique of a failing economic system, no less timely than when it was first filmed. IND 0:5 TET
Good horror’s ability to affect new fears within me is one of my favorite things in the world and Tetsuo: The Iron Man has me absolutely terrified of becoming a hunk of scrap metal. Huh, I never knew I was afraid of rusting. And yet, though I adore its no-fat, nightmares-only drive, Tsukamoto’s cesspunk film does little for me outside of this realization. Besides, I’m not on board when it whips out its metal penis.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, though, has had a special place in my heart since the first time I saw those movies (way later than everyone else). It mythologizes Indy, already an icon after Raiders, not only through giving him a past–a questionable choice made better by River Phoenix and Sean Connery–but by flinging him headlong into the most iconic quest of the Western canon. It’s a bit ridiculous–Harrison Ford and Sean Connery dogfight Nazis in a biplane, Indy’s biggest epiphany is remembering there’s no J in the Latin alphabet–but that only lends to the sense of grand adventure that I get when I even think about this film.
I have to go with Last Crusade on this vote, even if I am being a bit sentimental. IND 1:5 TET
And there you have it! What an upset! Tetsuo: The Iron Man wins the 1989 Tournament of Films with a decisive 5-1 victory over Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Thanks to all of the writers for participating, and thanks to you for reading.
Both films are in print and available for purchase through Amazon or to rent through your local independent video store.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; directed by Steven Spielberg; written by Jeffrey Boam; starring Harrison Ford, Sean Connery, Denholm Elliott, Alison Doody, John Rhys-Davies, Julian Glover, and River Phoenix; 127 minutes.
Tetsuo: The Iron Man; written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto; starring Tomorowo Taguchi, Kei Fujiwara, Nobu Kanaoka, and Shinya Tsukamoto; 67 minutes.