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By Joe Bendel. Criticized for his overly “metaphysical” approach, historian-philosopher Arnold J. Toynbee’s writings fell out of favor with the smart-set in the 1960’s. One mysterious urban propagandist has undertaken an unlikely guerrilla campaign to re-popularize Toynbee’s more outlandish speculations. His cryptic tiles have baffled many and intrigued a hardy band of investigators, who try to crack the riddle of his identity in Jon Foy’s documentary, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, which screens during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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If you live in New York, Philadelphia, or a host of other cities in the Northeast and Midwest, you might have stepped on or driven over a Toynbee tile. The basic message reads as follows:

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“TOYNBEE IDEA
IN KUBRICK’S 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER”

As if that were not weird enough, many tiles also feature sidebar tiles that rant against the government and media in terms sometimes approaching outright anti-Semitism. In other sidebars, the tilist claims sole responsibility for the Toynbees, despite their appearances across the country and in four Latin American countries.

For various reasons, the rag-tag group of Toynbee researchers take him at his word, narrowing in on three marginalized Philadelphians as their prime suspects. While their investigative process is often fascinating, Foy spends far more time than necessary introducing the self-styled Toynbee experts, particularly his central POV figure, underground artist Justin Duerr. Good for them for being intellectually curious, but they are not exactly enthralling on-screen.

At its best, Resurrect explores a fascinating intersection of outsider art and conspiracy theory subcultures. The pursuit takes them to some unlikely places, including the shortwave radio community, which is evidently still alive and broadcasting. Yet, perhaps the weirdest surprise of the film is the extent to which the mystery man reasonably interprets Toynbee. Though the historian did not necessarily say it would happen on Jupiter, he did hypothesize on the future possibility of resurrection through the rejuvenation of dead molecules. (However, the Kubrick connection is something of a stretch.)

The Toynbee tile phenomenon is a great idea for a documentary and it is cool that Foy retains some of the mystery surrounding them. Though it could stand to lose about ten minutes of Duerr’s backstory, Resurrect is still one of the more satisfying documentaries at this year’s Sundance.  Definitely recommended, it screens again tomorrow (1/27) and Saturday (1/29) as the festival continues.

Posted on January 26th, 2011 at 8:11pm.

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