Suspenseful ‘Toynbee Tiles’ dissects long-running urban mystery

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 15, 2011 8:19am
  • LifeGo-See-Do

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.

Talk to us

More in Life

Photos by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times 

The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House will open to public visitors Memorial Day weekend.
A landmark steeped in 19th century history reopens on Whidbey

Beginning May 28, you can venture inside one of the state’s oldest buildings: The Jacob and Sarah Ebey House, which dates from the 1850s.

Caption: Incorporating frozen vegetables into your menu plan is a fast and cost-effective way to save money on rising food costs.
The secrets of cheap meals: frozen veggies and slow cookers

They not only stretch your food budget, but also timesaving godsends for busy parents. Here are three recipes to try.

Cinderella_Red.jpg: Red Riding Hood (Katelynn Carlson) gets advice from Cinderella (Grace Helmcke) in Red Curtain’s production of Into the Woods, running May 20-June 5 at the Red Curtain Arts Center, 9315 State Ave. in Marysville.
Music, theater and more: What’s happening in Snohomish County

Marysville troupe stages a Stephen Sondheim musical masterpiece. Jazz, featuring the sons of legend Dave Brubeck, takes over Edmonds. And there’s this music festival in downtown Everett …

Navigating the rough, often scary seas of a hospital stay

After helping a friend who underwent major surgery, Paul Schoenfeld reflects on ways to cope for patients and their loved ones.

Sam Bowles records the run off the water from a chalk drawing with friend and co-artist, Rhyanna Mercer, Tuesday afternoon in Everett, Washington on May 10, 2022.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
Jackson High’s global TikTok star is chalk full of ideas

Sam Bowles, 18, uses vibrant videos and social media fame to raise awareness of autism.

I canceled my flight to Frankfurt, but now I can’t use my credit

Melissa Crespo receives a $2,060 ticket credit when she cancels her flights to Frankfurt, Germany. But now her online agency has told her she can only use 25% of the credit at a time. Can it do that?

Lonicera ciliosa, commonly called orange honeysuckle or western trumpet vine. (Richie Steffen)
Great Plant Pick: orange honeysuckle

Its orange trumpets announce spring is here, and hummingbirds are irresistibly drawn to it.

Home & garden happenings in Snohomish County

The Mill Creek Garden Tour will return this summer after a two-year absence due to COVID-19.

Photo Caption: Would you believe a zipper sold for $18,450 at Morphy Auctions? What about a diamond necklace that looks and works like a zipper?
X-Y-Z spells ‘big money’ with this high-fashion zipper

It’s actually a necklace, but the zipper function works. Someone paid nearly $18,500 for it at a recent auction.

Most Read