Direct from the "truth is stranger than fiction" files, the fascinating, accomplished and surprisingly emotional new documentary thriller Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles should, at the very least, remind bustling city-dwellers that there are more intriguing sights in the urban landscape than the contents of their smart phones.
The film centres on the journey of Philadelphia artist and musician Justin Duerr, who was living in a squat and working as a courier in the mid-1990s when he began photographing and cataloguing dozens of large, handmade linoleum tiles embedded in the asphalt streets of his hometown. Most of these tiles contained what initially seemed to be cryptic message written in four lines – "Toynbee Idea / in Movie 2001 / Resurrect Dead / on Planet Jupiter" – often accompanied by side messages in smaller text making a paranoid-sounding statement about major media or government agencies.
After the library began offering computer access to the Internet, Duerr realized he was not alone in his obsession with discovering the meaning and creator of this guerrilla art. He also learned this urban mystery reached far beyond Philadelphia city limits. Beginning, it is believed, around 1987, hundreds of "Toynbee tiles" started appearing in major cities in the American east and Midwest and even a few cities in South America. The online universe contained hundreds of theories but few hard clues.
One late night in the winter of 2000, Duerr left a take-out joint and discovered a fresh tile in the middle of the street. Having come tantalizingly close to laying eyes on the creator, Duerr was both rattled and recharged. A flurry of media interest in the Toynbee tiles also surfaced around this time, but the reports were mostly "oddity" items that come at the end of a news broadcast or articles about the online buzz.
Enter Philadelphia native and filmmaker Jon Foy, who begins pounding the pavement (so to speak) in 2005, with Duerr and fellow tile enthusiasts Colin Smith and Steve Weinik in an intense, connect-the-dots investigation full of both dead ends and strange revelations.
The main narrative of Resurrect Dead, which won Foy the documentary directing award at the 2011 Sundance festival, charts the trio's investigation. Some of the "dots" they connect include a South Philadelphia street address, a 1980 late-night Larry King radio phone-in show, a one-act David Mamet play, information from local shortwave radio buffs and messages that appeared on bus-stop handbills. To say how these connect would definitely be a spoiler.
But what elevates Foy's impressive first feature (he also served as editor and composer of the dark, whimsical score) above, say, your average "unsolved mystery" TV episode, is the emotional connection he gradually builds between Duerr and the elusive creator of the Toynbee tiles. Duerr's own story as a gifted, rebellious high school dropout, and his combination of confidence and fragility, make him a compelling character who not only makes us eager to join his quest but also helps us better understand the mind of an outsider artist.
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles opens at the Royal Cinema in Toronto on Sept. 23.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
- Directed by Jon Foy
- Featuring Justin Duerr, Colin Smith and Steve Weinik
- Classification: PG