The mosaic tiles look like they were paved into the streets on which they lay. They’re all over Philadelphia, but can also be found in New York, Washington D.C., and other locales as far away as South America. Some are located near pedestrian crosswalks, but others are in the middle of busy streets where no one could conceivably have placed them without causing a traffic jam.
With a couple slight variations, they all relay the same bizarre message:
IN MOVIE 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
With their long, slanted letters and abbreviated syntax, the so-called “Toynbee tiles” seem almost otherworldly amongst a city’s usual assortment of ads, street signs, storefronts and graffiti tags. Without any explanation or apparent purpose, they sit on the ground, waiting to be seen. Some people step on or over them, some marvel at the oddity and carry on with their day.
But others, like Justin Duerr, remain haunted by their enigmatic presence and can’t stop wondering about them. Duerr, the subject of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, first saw the tiles in 1993, and he never ceased his quest to discover their origins.
In 2005, first-time director John Foy teamed with Duerr and fellow enthusiasts Colin Smith and Steve Weinik to make a documentary about their investigation of the tiles. Six years later, the result of their efforts is an atmospheric character study folded in a mesmerizing mystery. Resurrect Dead may be a bit rough and unpolished, but the aesthetic nicely reflects the DIY effort of both the construction of the tiles and the improvised effort to track down their maker.
Duerr sleeps amongst boxes of photographs of different Toynbee tiles. The Philly-based artist grew up as a misfit, prone to trouble and lapses of good sense. Duerr’s fixation with the tiles creates a nice link between him and the film’s hypothesis on the origins of the tiles: the inability to step away from a fascinating idea. In the case of the tilemaker, the film suspects, that inability led to a grand effort in low-budget mass communication.
Those who saw Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop might think of the French street artist Space Invader, known for leaving mosaics of square tiles that depict old-school videogame characters in unexpected places. But many underground urban artists know and interact with their anonymous contemporaries. The concepts behind the work are apparent. That’s not the case with the Toynbee tiles, whose creator has never directly acknowledged his existence to anyone else.
That leaves a series of big, gaping questions: Were the tiles crafted as some sort of surreal sci-fi art project, or a sincere desire to deliver a message? Who is the artist? Did he or she act out of the usual artistic impulses, or the desire to be seen and heard above the impenetrable mainstream media?
The investigators’ goal is to learn the identity of the person behind the messages, but the emotional core rests in the motivation behind them. The film invites us to share in Duerr’s obsession, steering us into the tile-creator’s dark psyche, which we can’t fully understand. The oblique language in the tiles only adds to the mystery, communicating with an unclear, dreamlike series of words.
The message, the film deduces, refers to famous historian Arnold J. Toynbee and comments he made about social rebirth, which have somehow been connected to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and its famous “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” finale, which depicts man reborn as the star child. But these details don’t reveal a clear purpose.
In addition to the recurring main text, many tiles feature smaller sections with additional messages on them. One particularly haunting, unusually long subtext reveals a paranoid view of the media and “hellion Jews” who control it.
In the early days of the Internet, some people began to poke around and trade notes. Clues in the subtexts opened up new possibilities, which always reached dead ends. The leads go to such unexpected areas as David Mamet and CB radio. There’s even a late-night discovery in which Duerr comes oh so close to the tiler.
The film may be a documentary, but it’s structured as a mystery, and it’s both entertaining and satisfying to watch it reveal itself. If you go in with no knowledge of the tiles, you might enjoy it more. Foy sets up the facts of the case, identifies possible suspects, then follows his subjects as they investigate all possible avenues. It leads to a conclusion that works both in the context of the mystery and in the portrait of Duerr’s fixation.
Some moments, like that near-encounter, are reenacted. Others are shown through Duerr’s drawings (which aren’t animated but simply photographed to evoke the moments). Many more were captured on video of various quality. The filmmakers don’t always execute the variety of media in the slickest way possible, but the subject is so fascinating that it hardly matters.