Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

The documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles bears some faint structural and motivational resemblance to last year’s Catfish, in that it uses the structure of a mystery plot for narrative momentum, and does so effectively. But the resemblance ends there, as Resurrect Dead is about a very singular subject.

The Toynbee tiles have provoked a great deal of speculation, with their inscrutable text and the way they seem to appear in odd places. In a way they’re the perfect internet mystery, in that the fractured syntax and a little bit of research get you deep enough in to have kind of figured out what their creator is trying to say, but the why is elusive enough to provoke endless open-ended debates on countless forums for years. The who is a provocative enough question to inspire documentary filmmaker Jon Foy to spend several years making a film about the whole thing.

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We end up learning a great deal more about Foy’s three on-camera protagonists, Justin Duerr, Colin Smith, and Steve Weinik than we do about the creator of the Toynbee tiles, but the resolution of the documentary reveals that this is less due to them being inept detectives — quite the contrary, they’re smart, bold, and tenacious — than them realizing, the more they discover about the man they believe to be the creator, the deeper the mystery goes.

Resurrect Dead is as empathetic and nuanced a look at the condition of otherness as we’re ever going to see. As our (proudly and unironically) nerdy protagonists pursue the identity of the tiles’ creator, they meet some truly breathtaking nerds. They go to a shortwave radio convention. Make no mistake, this is not me pointing and laughing, this is me in awe that such a thing still exists. The filmmakers never judge any of their subjects, and it is quite clear that they care deeply about human beings. Which is great, and rare.

There’s a limit to how much one can say about Resurrect Dead without spoiling the sense of discovery the audience experiences side by side with the protagonists, so I’ll leave the particulars there, except to say, the answers we get are not the ones we may have been expecting, but they are the right ones. One such answer is the connection between Arnold Toynbee, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Larry King, and David Mamet (tenuous though it may be, it’s a humdinger, as the kids say).

Portraits of obsessives are rarely as completely free of judgment as Resurrect Dead, which certainly has me thinking twice about using the words “weird” or “crazy” now. This probably won’t last, but Resurrect Dead is a good enough movie for that temporary gesture of respect. It’s the rare work of art that appeals equally to the mind and the (metaphorical) heart, and while nothing groundbreaking as a documentary or even a narrative, it’s certainly worth an hour and a half of your time.


Danny Bowes is a playwright, filmmaker and blogger. He is also a contributor to nytheatre.com and Premiere.com.

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