Suspenseful ‘Toynbee Tiles’ dissects long-running urban mystery

  • Thu Dec 15th, 2011 8:19am
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

Any documentary that could dig up answers about a mystifying urban guerilla-art phenomenon would’ve had some value. It’s a great bonus that “Resurrect Dead” also happens to be well paced, evocatively scored and suspenseful.

The full title is “Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,” and the urban mystery at hand concerns the baffling appearance of plaques embedded in streets in a dozen U.S. cities (and a few in South America, too). No one has ever admitted placing the tiles, or explained what they mean.

The tiles usually contain four lines, with slight variations: “Toynbee Idea/In Kubrick’s 2001/Resurrect Dead/On Planet Jupiter.” Occasionally there are added messages, usually of a paranoid variety.

Director John Foy teamed up with Toynbee Tiles fanatic Justin Duerr to make this film, along with a pair of dogged Toynbee devotees, Colin Smith and Steve Weinik. First the movie summarizes the history and possible meaning of the tiles, then settles down to watch the team as they track down leads on the possible identity of the tilemaker.

The perpetrator of the tiles probably lives in Philadelphia, where the first Toynbees were discovered. The words refer to an idea from the historian Arnold Toynbee about the regeneration of dead material, which the creator of the tiles relates to Stanley Kubrick’s classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

Things really pick up when the list of possible suspects narrows to a handful, and the slightly crazy, thoroughly indomitable Duerr leads the crew to a house in a residential neighborhood.

For a while, actually, Duerr himself sounds like a possible culprit — it seems a little too convenient that he claims one night to have stumbled across a Toynbee Tile minutes after it was placed in the street — and he does have a day job as an underground artist.

Let’s not give away the ending. This movie has plenty of revelations to enjoy, and in fact it qualifies as one of the really unexpected winners of the movie year.

But we can say that a sense of mystery remains at the end. And somehow that’s how it should be. Part of the great appeal of phenomena like the Toynbee Tiles is how utterly out-of-nowhere they are. A little of the real-world magic is dissipated if we find out what it’s all about, and happily this movie leaves some of that intact.

“Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles” (3 stars)

A genuinely suspenseful documentary about the Toynbee Tiles, a decades-old urban mystery involving plaques left embedded in city streets. The film skillfully decodes the meaning of the tiles’ odd message, and tries to discover the creator of them.

Rated: Not rated; probably PG-13 for subject matter.

Showing: Northwest Film Forum.