Detective documentary Resurrect Dead follows a man's quest to solve the mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. Photos courtesy of Silverdocs
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
At one time, you could find them scattered in over a dozen locations in downtown DC. Hand-cut linoleum tiles baked right into the blacktop, bearing a cryptic message:
In Kubrick’s 2001
On Planet Jupiter
Most of them are gone now, paved over or removed, but they were the same as tiles that appeared in cities throughout the Northeast, parts of the Midwest, and even a few locations in South America. The epicenter was Philadelphia, where the “Toynbee tiles” first appeared in the mid-1980s. When the Internet finally allowed people to realize that the tiles were widespread, many began to share their theories on their meaning and origin. Philly resident Justin Duerr took an obsession with what he previously thought was a local phenomenon and made solving its mystery his primary hobby. Director Jon Foy’s Resurrect Dead documents Duerr’s search, alongside two other Toynbee fanatics, Colin Smith and Steve Weinik.
Detective documentaries, those that themselves attempt to unlock mysteries or follow subjects who do, can be some of the most satisfying to watch; they take the same elements of suspense that drive many narrative films, with the added tension that results from the unpredictability of real life. Resurrect Dead is no exception, and Foy does an excellent job using interviews with Duerr, and some not-too-cheesy reenactments of a few important events in Duerr’s search that occurred before filming began, to give background and speculation about the tiles before jumping into the proper detective work.
There are only a few leads available to them, leads that have been well known to the Toynbee enthusiast community for years. But the trio meticulously chase down each one, and wind up being the first ones to really put together a concrete profile of the person behind the tiles. It would spoil the film’s carefully constructed revelations to say much more on that, but there are times when the story is as close to edge-of-the seat viewing as documentaries usually get.
Foy also attempts to draw parallels between Duerr and the tiler: Both are somewhat eccentric, artistically inclined, and a little obsessive. Duerr understands what drives the tiler, and that is perhaps what allows him to go so much further in the investigation than those who have come before him. The aim is to make Duerr as much the subject of the documentary as the mystery. Foy’s method of making those connections, though, with biographical sections about Duerr that seem disconnected from the rest of the film, are the only clumsy steps in a piece that otherwise deftly brings together a complicated series of clues and events across a 30-year timeline.
The end Foy and Duerr give us may not be the neatly tied solution we’d get out of a narrative version of this story, but that’s the great thing about documentaries: They aren’t obligated to follow normal story conventions. The ending really does become about Duerr and his search and what drives us to want to find answers to riddles to begin with.
Resurrect Dead screens in AFI Silver Theater 2 at 5:15 PM on Friday, June 24, and in AFI Silver Theater 3 at 10:45 PM on Saturday, June 25. Individual tickets and festival passes (prices vary) available at the Silverdocs Web site.