Documentary Corner: Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011)

Elizabeth Meade discusses obsession in Jon Foy's 2011 documentary

Elizabeth Meade
28th February 2021
Image: IMDb
Directed by Jon Foy and starring Justin Duerr, the real-life amateur investigator behind the Toynbee Tiles case, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (2011) is a Sundance Film Festival award-winner like no other. Once you finish watching the film, however, you may wonder whether or not that is actually a good thing.

Following one man's journey to decipher some cryptic marks on the pavement, Resurrect Dead is an exploration into a decades-old art project, the niche communities and works that inspired it and the reclusive man behind it.

Image: IMDb

Like many great documentaries with a "real-life mystery" theme, it's best that I don't spoil the ending of Resurrect Dead. A large part of the film's interest level is that the viewer is taken on a journey alongside the protagonist, with some payoff in the end. While those who prefer films based on a straightforward, put-it-all-at-the-forefront approach to nonfiction topics may find it to be overly whimsical or wish that certain scenes had been cut out to save time, viewers who enjoy clever storytelling applied to a real-life situation (albeit one which could have been pulled out of a book by Chuck Palahniuk, David Foster Wallace or Mark Z. Danielewski) will enjoy being taken along for the ride.

Despite being very professionally made, the whole production has a very candid, amateur-ish homemade feel to it

The filmmaking is not terribly exciting. While the content is interesting and all of the interviews are put together nicely, the film lacks any of the really great, artistic shots that characterize truly amazing documentaries. However, despite having similar quality to a made-for-TV documentary in terms of visuals, the story that the audience quickly becomes engrossed in as Duerr follows different leads in investigating the street tiles largely compensates for the lack of exciting angles or unique framing.

The film is also very much designed to appeal to people who already have some interest in Internet mysteries and true crime, between the melodramatic music and the chronological evidence collecting. Despite being very professionally made, the whole production has a very candid, amateur-ish homemade feel to it that firmly places the subject matter in the real world. Anyone who has listened to a podcast about some real-world mystery late at night and felt as if they were part of a small group of people discussing how to solve it will enjoy this aspect of the presentation. Fans of spontaneous, unauthorized urban art projects will enjoy it as well.

Director Jon Foy
Image: IMDb

The film's weaknesses largely lie in the subject matter: how many people genuinely want to watch a film about someone dedicating years to finding out who made a work of art? Was it worth it for the artist to put so much effort into the project if nearly nobody was going to notice or comment on it? Was it worth it for Duerr to spend years pursuing information on the project, knowing it could likely turn out to be meaningless? And is it worth it for us, as viewers, to spend an hour and a half watching a film about this quest? What does each party's participation in the process say about them?

Truly, the film's mere existence underlines what little it takes to spark a fixation on something mysterious and unheard-of.

While the film never explicitly raises any of these questions, they are all certainly good questions to ponder after viewing, although it would be a stretch to say they are implicit in the telling of the tale. I am also critical of the filmmaker's attempts to discuss the life of someone who didn't want to be contacted, or even known of. It seemed like poor journalistic integrity, although he fortunately respected the artist's desire to not be contacted and did not bother him after one or two initial tries.

The mere fact that any of this exists - the Toynbee Tiles, Resurrect Dead, the audience, this article - reveals much about the lengths we will go to express our beliefs or satisfy our curiosity, not to mention what we will do for the chance to witness a real mystery in the modern world. Truly, the film's mere existence underlines what little it takes to spark a fixation on something mysterious and unheard-of.

Though this film will likely fall flat on those outside the narrow target audience, you might find it a thought-provoking journey.

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AUTHOR: Elizabeth Meade
(she/her) Head of Current Affairs (News, Campus Comment, Comment, Science). Chemistry major. Avid reader. Chaos theorist. Amateur batrachologist and historian. Rock fan. Likes cybersecurity and cooking. Wrote the first article for Puzzles. Probably the first Courier writer to have work featured in one of Justin Whang's videos.

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