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Looking for Toynbee Tile Truth and Protecting the Mystery in Resurrect Dead

"This thing that's been here all along doesn't make sense."

Alien to the street yet embedded within it, easy to read but impossible to decipher, the Toynbee Tiles are an internationally enigmatic, handcrafted phenomenon. First discovered in the early 1980s, these crudely tiled signs have appeared in pavements all over the world, each uniquely made yet all expressing an identical message:

Toynbee Idea

Steve Weinik

Details

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
Directed by Jon Foy
Argot Pictures
Opens September 2, IFC Center

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In Kubrick's 2001

Resurrect Dead

On Planet Jupiter

The words seem deliberately, outlandishly cryptic. But as Jon Foy's appropriately DIY, remarkably sincere documentary debut reveals, the truth is both stranger and more straightforward than that.

Since no one has ever come forward to claim authorship of the tiles, the mystery of the "Toynbee Tiler" has been irresistible to all manner of amateur sleuths. One of them is Foy's main subject and collaborator, Philadelphia outsider artist and musician Justin Duerr. The kind of gawky, high school oddball who grows up to be the most interesting and upstanding person you know, Duerr has been tracking the Tiler since he was a teenaged squatter in 1994. As told to Foy, his first Internet search, conducted in a Philadelphia library reading room, was for information on the Toynbee Tiles (it yielded zero results). Later employed as a courier, he found tiles all over the city, and soon satisfied his hobbyist curiosity with tile-centric bus trips to Baltimore, New York, Boston and beyond.

Foy never makes the point too plainly, but self-identification has something to do with Duerr's fixation—he relates to the reclusiveness, the fiddly, almost pathological ingenuity, and even shares a pigeon obsession with the prime suspect. It also has something to do with Foy's affection for Duerr—and everything to do with why his film is such an uncommonly sensitive and layered portrait of outsider-dom. An indie musician and film school dropout who worked as a house cleaner during the protracted making of the documentary, Foy's not a slumming dilettante: he's a fellow traveler. In turn, his unguarded enthusiasm encourages ours, like a friend with a big old boaty American car inviting you to pile in and marvel at the mysteries of the neighborhood.

The film's investigation is two-fold: to discover the identity of the tiler, and to understand the meaning of his message. Assisted by cub sleuths Steve Weinik and Colin Smith, Foy and Duerr follow leads from the Northeast corridor to Buenos Aires, from Internet chat rooms to shortwave radio conventions, and from cockamamie conspiracy theorists to playwright David Mamet, before spiraling back eerily close to where they started: the working class streets of south Philadelphia.

Resurrect Dead works splendidly as a threadbare urban mystery, teasing out details and complications without withholding too much information. Duerr interprets each line of the tile's text individually, then pieces them back together to understand the tiler's evident message—an eccentric death-defying plea that grows more poignant, if no less disorienting, the closer our sleuths come to identifying the tiler. As Duerr and his associates narrow in on the likeliest suspect, they're inclined to stop short of disclosure. After more than a decade of seeking, they understand all too well what drives a man to hide. Turned on by a mystery, they start to turn off when faced with an understandable, intimately relatable need to maintain it.

 
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