Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles: Something to See

Resurrect Dead : The Mystery of the Toynbee tiles is an unusually compelling documentary about a young artist who becomes obsessed with solving the mystery of odd handmade tiles that began appearing randomly on streets and highways across America in the early 1980s. The tiles are mostly identical, expressing incoherent ideas about life after death on the planet Jupiter.

The artist, Justin Duerr, seeking the identity of the strange tile-maker, is himself a rare bird who left school at 16 rather than conform to his art teacher’s dream for his success. Justin’s burning desire to unravel the mystery brings him into contact with two other like-minded young internet geeks. Their methodical detective work and camaraderie are merely one aspect of this film that raises one’s hope for humanity.

The tiles and their seemingly desperate message are an arresting subject. The approach taken by filmmaker John Foy shapes a haunting story of curiosity and idealism, guerrilla art and political paranoia, and a trail of clues that lead to a well-protected secret. The yearning to understand comes smack against the yearning to be left alone.

A poignant film with a suitably dark score, it is the perfect execution of its whimsical, intensely philosophical subject matter. You feel the wonder of art itself, and the joy of pursuing a project with absolute commitment.

This entry was posted in Art and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles: Something to See

  1. Andra says:

    I am immediately reminded of a man called Arthur Stace of Sydney, Australia who went around for years writing “Eternity” on everything.
    It’s a fascinating story and one well worth a read.
    If you google Mr Eternity more will be revealed.

    PS: I’m so glad you’re feeling better.

  2. Deni says:

    I want to see this film!

  3. Blighty says:

    Fascinating, I will try to see it, so refreshing to hear about something different.

  4. kristen says:

    I saw this last weekend on Netflix streaming as was very moved by it as well, though I had to fight the urge to turn the film off at least 2 or 3 times… nothing wrong with the film itself, I just found myself realizing that I didn’t actually want to know who really was behind these tiles as the protagonists drew closer to solving the mystery. I’ve lived in Philly for about half my life and I’ve been stepping over/marveling at/pondering over these tiles just as long. Did you happen to have a similar experience, Sister Wolf?

  5. Sister Wolf says:

    Kristen – Wow, I can’t imagine growing up with such a weird mystery right under my feet! But yes, I sort of dreaded the unveiling of the mystery. I thought the ending was perfect, in that respect.

  6. Suspended says:

    Watched this last night and really enjoyed it. I loved the fact that the tiler had actually adapted his car so he could tile covertly. The pieces of the puzzle came together quite nicely.

    It’s a shame they didn’t get to talk to him. I’d loved to have learned more about the man himself, about the process of making the tiles and gained a deeper insight into his eccentricities.

    Thanks Sister Wolf, I’d never even heard of the Toynbee tiles. xx

  7. Sister Wolf says:

    Suspended – Oh I’m so glad you liked it!

  8. Joan says:

    Dear Sister Wolf – I am so glad that I stumbled onto your blog a few years ago, somehow. You always amaze and enlighten me on something new and thought provoking. Being Canadian, but with American ties, your dislike of Republicans also warms my heart. xo

  9. M says:

    This is completely random, but am I the only one who finds the blog “Garance Dore” to be extremely obnoxious?

  10. ali says:

    I will check this out. You never lead astray with your entertainment choices.

    I am currently reading Keith Richards’ autobiography. It talks a little bit about the development of his style…which he said was mostly “developed” from stealing clothes from his girlfriends and out of trashcans. I think it’s funny because Erin Wasson is evil here and we aren’t such huge fans of rockstar girlfriends like Anita Pallenberg either… and yet… Keith

    Anyway, I thought you would get a kick out of that piece of information if you haven’t already read the autobiography.

  11. Sister Wolf says:

    Joan – Thank you so much! I believe I hate them so much I can set your heart on fire!

    M – Every decent person hates that blog.

    ali – Wow, interesting, thank you!

  12. Hammie says:

    Yep *Eternity*

  13. trofferb says:

    Am i the only one that thinks its strange, both justin and sevy (morasco, sivy) were both called “birdman”? (And were both into birds) Also were both kinda social outcasts…

    When the guy scanned and sent them the documents, what first name did james morasco sign? Looks like it starts with a “F” (maybe a “J”, but def not “james”), appears to have a dotted “i”. The film shows a close up of this, but i cant read it… looks like a bunch of “u”‘s and “r”‘s, in cursive writing of course.

    on a side note as to how sevy was doing the tiling, i instantly thought of a van, way before the film mentions his car…thats the way i’d do it. guess i get a brownie button huh?

    also is philly that dead(no pun intended) at night no body noticed a guy with a huge antenna on his car stopped in the middle of the road, or in front of the tunnel, or highway?

    pump oxygen into jupiters atmosphere?…. from where?

    interesting movie… crazy bastard(sevy, and possibly durr =) )
    … crazy maybe

  14. Sister Wolf says:

    trofferb – YES, the birdman thing was so uncanny and yet they didn’t comment on it. I think it gave the story a kind of symmetry. And you definitely get a brownie point and a Sherlock Holmes award. Please let me know if you come across any other interesting documentaries!

  15. Sister Wolf says:

    Andra and Hammie – Oh my god, Mr. Eternity!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  16. trofferb says:

    While watching the movie, I actually though of an episode I saw of the tv series Through the Wormhole (Morgan Freeman) called “Is There Life After Death?”, at least I think it was this episode. Anyway, in it they talk about being able to bring everyone back to life that has ever lived through a quantum computer. Of course quantum computers nowadays can only do very simple calculations, but we expect them to grow in power once we figure them out.

    If this were true however, I believe one would only be living inside the computer… but with all the same makeup of the original you, thoughts, memories and all. But the way a quantum computer works, how would it not be part of our reality? And we could build bodies for them, upload the data (maybe even remotely), and let them walk around just like us!

    One controversial side of it stated is, would it really be you? Would a dead person suddenly find him/herself alive again? And what I cam up with is, what if you did it to someone before they died? Would that person have two “beings” but with one consciousness?

    Maybe I took it all too far… but that’s just how I think.

    This movie actually kinda freaked me out, because I don’t believe in ghosts or afterlife. So last night I was trippin a little. Just a little.

  17. trofferb says:

    …just to add, now there’s a brand new episode of “Through the Wormhole” called “Can We Resurrect The Dead ?” Haven’t watched it yet though. Check it out.

  18. Sister Wolf says:

    trofferb – I’m trying to remember the name of a great indie film a few years ago where these two guys build a time travel machine and keep bumping into themselves…very disturbing.

  19. Suspended says:

    I came across Le Ballon Rouge after watching the Toynbee documentary. It’s a really short movie from 1956, about 30mins, and thoroughly charming. It’s about a small boy who becomes friends with a big red balloon. It follows him to school etc and, as is usual with the things we love in life, people become envious and their desires for the balloon soon turn destructive. Simple and beautiful.

    The last documentary I watched was The Bridge. I won’t go so far as to document its contents, maybe you’ve seen it, maybe you’d never want to, but I do think you’d get something from it, Sister Wolf. I’m certain it would upset, shock and anger you, but ultimately I think you’d appreciate the many perspectives. I found it quite fascinating, but ultimately heart breaking, for many different reasons; not just the hopelessness felt by some but also the complete lack of compassion displayed by ‘friends’.


  20. Sister Wolf says:

    Suspended – I saw “the Red Balloon” when I was a kid and I remember it as heartbreaking! If “The Bridge” is the one about the Golden Gate Bridge, I have written about it and I would like to shoot that filmmaker in the head.

  21. trofferb says:

    sister wolf, it didnt happen to be “Primer”? I don’t know if that’s an indie, and it’s not all that old either, but it was about timer travel. Two guys rented out a storage space, put their time contraption in there, and would go in there to use it. I don’t remember all of it, but weird time related paradoxes started happening. Crazy stuff.

    I’ve always enjoyed time conudrums such as the grandfather paradox. Too cool!

  22. trofferb says:

    … my message above should read time travel, in the 2nd sentence, not timer travel. 😉

  23. Sister Wolf says:

    YES, “Primer” is the one, thank you! More people should see it, right?

  24. Suspended says:

    Yes, it is that documentary, Sister. I’ll admit I did have a slight incline you might feel that way. I wasn’t very sure how to feel about it. The subject matter and voyeurism left me a bit numb. I had absolutely no idea this was a common problem. Truly heartbreaking.

  25. trofferb says:

    primer was confusing… hard to follow the paradoxes

  26. Sister Wolf says:

    trofferb – yeah, I needed my husband to explain things to me.

  27. trofferb says:

    Too cool.

    I’m not sure Resurrect Dead : The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is a totally accurate depiction of the whole phenomenon. I don’t trust artists! 🙂 But who am I to say? I’m bugged by the symmetry of the characters, and Railroad Joe’s routes being on top where all the tiles were found (or close by) among other things. Like Justin’s supposedly close interaction with Sevy twice, once when he found the brand new fresh tiles, and also the supposed (more like assumed) running into him on the trolley or bus or whatever towards the end. I run into strange people everyday… they look at me,I look back at them, they look away so I do too after a while, then they or I may then look back to see if they are looking again. Boys and girls do this all the time to each other, “normal” people and trippers alike.

    Purely guessing, not that I believe this, but let’s say for example “Sevy” was really Justin’s dad… and Justin is trying to keep this “Toynbee Idea, Movie 2001, etc” idea going. This might explain the birdman thing. Like I said this is an example… I’m not saying this is true… But I don’t trust anything with entertainment value and imagery, coming from an artist! ie. HOLLYWOOD. 🙂

    Plus I could have made this movie/doc 45 min long. Not the average Hollywood 1:15:00-1:52:00 (seems like its always 52)

    I just don’t trust things weren’t added in via artist licensing. Just my feeling. Not that it matters or changes Justin’s truth

  28. Zan says:

    I watched this last weekend per your recommendation, and I really enjoyed it–thank you! Now I’m going to check out Primer.

  29. Rob says:

    I watched Resurrect Dead based on your recommendation, Sister Wolf, and I really loved it. As you said, there was something really poignant and a bit melancholy about the whole story. And Justin Duerr is a really interesting subject himself (and kinda cute in a nerdy crust punk way). Thank you for recommending it, watching it made my weekend. Stuff like this makes the world a little more exciting and wondrous.

  30. Sister Wolf says:

    Rob – I’m so glad you liked it!

  31. Susie Cross says:

    Justin is the maker of the Toynbee Tiles. Anyone that knew him, knew he did it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *