Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles
Justin Duerr, Steve Weinik, Colin Smith
US theatrical: 2 Sep 2011 (Limited release)
Make + Glue tile!! You! Only by destruction of media can this movement survive.
—A Toynbee Tile
“The first time I noticed a Toynbee Tile on the street was on South Street.” It sounds so simple and innocuous, this “first time.” And yet it’s not. As Justin Duerr tells his story in the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, spotting the tile initiates an investigation that will go on for years. And the imagery as he tells it—the close-up of his nearly painfully pale face, then the cuts to tiles, seeming to float even as they’re anchored in pavement—is hinting at why it goes on for years, an indication of Justin’s capacity for creative thinking and commitment and a particular kind of evolving comprehension. It’s a sign of what he will come to see, beyond the tile, and beyond the next step he imagines for himself, as well as the film’s own part in that imagining.
It’s also a sign of how smart and odd and provocative Resurrect Dead will be. If Jon Foy’s film begins with Justin’s discovery, it goes on to examine what’s at stake in discovery as an idea and a practice, what Justin and his fellow investigators working on the Toynbee Tile Mystery realize about themselves in this process. It’s also, more profoundly, a consideration of how the material world can intersect with imagined worlds, conjured from subjective experiences, collective perspectives, and efforts to define selves in relation to others. The film tells the stories of lives, but also looks at how those stories are produced and told, how they circulate and how they lead to other stories. It’s a remarkable movie, both for the questions it poses and the answers it never quite articulates.
But to back up a step: Justin is intrigued by what he sees in that first tile in 1994, that is, a phrase and poetic arrangement that will become familiar to him and everyone else who notices the Toynbee Tiles: “Toynbee Idea / In Kubrick’s 2001 / Resurrect Dead / On Planet Jupiter.” Justin remembers that his first encounter was not especially life-changing, given his circumstances. He was a street kid, literally, living in “a chaotic squat for 17-year-old runaways” in Philadelphia. You learn later, via his brother Marc’s interview, that he was previously a promising art student, that he didn’t take well to his teacher’s efforts to shape his self-expressions, and that his battles with school authorities led to another set of options: “Once he got kicked out of art class at the beginning of 1980,” says Marc, “his high school days were numbered.”
Photos provide scant documentation of these days, as a scrawny Justin and a squat-mate smile at the camera, flashing metal signs, their space littered with sleeping bags and broken chairs and a tea kettle, the wall adorned with a list of words suggesting their own sense of poetry (“Annoy, Uglify, Behead, Smash, Dismember…”). The flashbulb light washes out their already pale faces, the black and white suggesting a past that’s not quite over. As Justin explains his growing fascination with the tiles, that concept becomes slightly clearer; by 1996, he took a job as a foot courier and soon observed more tiles, “all over the place.” He remembers, “I would walk over the tiles over and over again, so I’d think about them every single day.”
To cut to the chase, so to speak: Justin begins to research, using the public library’s internet. This in itself takes a couple of years, as his online searches lead to hits gradually. If Justin has a life outside the tiles, you don’t hear about it. “I think one of the best descriptions that I’ve heard of Justin is ‘unstoppable force,’” says his friend Kevin Riley. The film remains focused on his not stopping, his pursuit and the community that develops around it: as he learns that the tiles exist in other U.S. cities as well as in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janiero he connects with other Toynbee Tile investigators, Steve Weinik and Colin Smith. And as they “pool their resources,” they come to a series of conclusions, a list of “suspects” (written here on notebook paper, intimating the rudimentary tools available to the investigators) as well as guesses as to reasons why someone would be making them.
A key question, of course, is how and why the tiles are in such public places: how are they embedded in asphalt so that no one witnesses the embedding? And why are they making visible such cryptic notes (Justin points out that the primary “message” is attended, in some other tiles, by “side texts,” illustrated by a slide show in the film and include “Please make and glue tiles as the American media is working with the Soviet Union and its thousands of fronts in USA to…”, “Now the cult of the hellion,” “Murder every journalist. I beg you,” as well as the “Manifesto Tile,” which Justin describes as hundreds of words, a “long, paranoid, rambling message.”
The film provides more illustration here, drawings that are at once grim and antic, sketches of scary men or secret agency situations, visualizing the manifesto’s wildly fearful non-narrative. “There’s a quality to it that was very frightening and disturbing and strange,” says Justin. And yet, he describes this incoherence as itself a mark of its authenticity: “It’s not an art project that’s put together by some art students or something,” says Justin, “It’s something that’s insane, it’s real.”
This assumption takes on its own changing shape through the film, which nimbly and subtly avoids judgment as it also provides assorted and not particularly acute contexts for Justin and company’s “readings” of the tiles and the Tiler. “I always thought it was one person,” Justin asserts early on, and then, when they find a tile that proclaims, “I am only one man,” he’s certain. “All of a sudden, we know something we didn’t know before. It’s one man”—as if the tiles are “all of a sudden” true, or a sign of truth, or offer a direct route to truth. Whatever that truth might be.
This even as the Tiler remains utterly elusive. Justin, Steve, and Colin make their pursuit of him more visible. As they’re attended by the documentary makers, they refer to them during the later stages of the pursuit: “We’re filming a documentary about a mysterious phenomenon,” Justin tells a talk show host, by way of promoting his project and soliciting help from the short wave radio community. The film thus becomes part of its own subject matter, a terrifically meta construction that helps to make Resurrect Dead more complicated, that raises questions about how truth (or better, “truth”) is also a construction, manipulated and imagined by rational and paranoid minds alike.
This part of Resurrect Dead sneaks up on you, for on its surface, it does resemble a film about an investigation by a group of self-admittedly obsessive young men. But as it is increasingly about the multiple layers of obsessiveness—in the Tiler, in the young men, in the film, and in potential viewers—it is also about the value of seeing that obsessiveness, in ways that are at once focused and blurred. More obscurely and more acutely, it’s about seeing imaginatively, and, as Justin puts it, with empathy. “There’s a big part of that story that has to just do with empathizing with him as a person,” he says near film’s end. “We found out everything we needed to find out.” And yet, this knowledge leads to a new sort of knowledge, a new way of seeing. “It gets to this point,” Justin says, “where there’s this strange kind of, you know, dilemma, where you say, ‘Okay, how much is too much, and let’s just step back and leave it as it is.’”
Except… if you’ve been paying attention, you see that nothing is quite “as it is.” The years of work, the relationships that developed, have changed the very idea of what Justin has been doing, and indeed, what the film (which took 10 years to make and may or may not be media in need of “destruction”) has been doing. Now it’s unclear what can be true, or how truth matters. It’s not what can be documented. It’s something else. And that realization is not a stepping back at all, but a step in very new direction.