One aggressively frigid night last November, Jon Foy headed home from his job sucking dirt out of Berber carpet and collecting trash in corporate apartments in Center City. His bike was broken, and he didn’t have fare for the trolley. As he trudged home to West Philadelphia, a new message dropped into his voicemail. It was from Sundance.
It wasn’t a call he’d been expecting. He immediately called back, and a festival programmer answered. “He said, ‘I loved your film. We all loved your film.’ What do you say when something like that happens?” says Foy, 32. “He said, ‘Would you want to show it at Sundance in documentary competition?’ I was in tears. I didn’t know what to say.”
Chosen from more than 800 applicants, Foy’s directorial debut, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, was one of 16 films contending in the U.S. Documentary category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s a film simultaneously crewed by and starring four scrappy guys from Philly, documenting their investigation of one of their city’s mysteries. They’ve called it “a movie about obsession and a sort of self-realization.” The story of how Resurrect Dead made it to Sundance is straight out of the movies—there’s even a happy ending.
But let’s start with a flashback.
In the early ’80s, cryptic messages had been popping up all over the streets of Philadelphia, scattered in more than two dozen locations. License-plate-sized linoleum tiles appeared embedded in the pavement, proclaiming variants of a peculiar phrase likely to be familiar to Center City pedestrians: “TOYNBEE IDEA IN 2001 RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER.”
Dozens and dozens of these tiles (although some are likely copycats) have surfaced and disappeared over the past few decades. Philly has the most by far, but there’s more all over the East Coast and the Midwest. Toynbee tiles have even been found as far south as Argentina.
Wherever they appeared, they spurred some questions. What did the message mean? Who made them? How did their anonymous maker install them without getting caught or hit by a bus? Are they art, the rantings of an insane person, or both?
But the bigger question is “Why?” The originals are believed to have been laid long before a curious person could easily turn up a Wikipedia entry and thousands of Google hits. Was the message just nonsense? Or did the tiler create a puzzle in hopes that somebody would solve it?
“In the mid-’90s, when I started getting really fixated on the tiles as an art form, it was hard to interest anybody in it,” says Justin Duerr, 34. None of the filmmakers could come up with a gathering place that wasn’t a noisy bar, so they ended up talking about their film on this reporter’s couch, drinking tea and ginger beers. “Nobody saw the appeal as much as I did.” Out of the four, Duerr is onscreen most often in Resurrect Dead , carrying the plot on his shoulders. He’s a striking figure, all ink, lines and angles, decorated with tattoos as if he were born out of a page from his prolific sketchbooks. When asked about the film, he tends to fidget and glance around as if mapping an escape route.
He channels his seemingly infinite nervous energy into a firehose of creative output. He’s an active member of half a dozen bands around the city, including Hex 9 and Northern Liberties, and has devoted years to a series of hand-drawn narrative scrolls that could wallpaper a small apartment.
Duerr became fascinated with the Toynbee tiles after noticing them on South Street as a teenager in the mid-’90s, and quickly grew obsessed with researching them and solving their riddle. He researched them in his spare time for the better part of a decade and became known in some (very specific) circles as an expert on the topic. He’d tell anyone interested—and some who weren’t—all about the mystery with evangelical zeal, but it didn’t seem to speak to other people the way it spoke to him.
Understandably, he was a little freaked out when the tiles appeared to speak to him in the literal sense one night in 2000.
Duerr beat his roommate home and pressed the button on their blinking answering machine. He listened with mounting excitement as a creepy, robotic voice droned “Toynbee idea. In 2001. Resurrect dead. On. Planet. Jupiter.”
“I thought that it was the culprit of the Toynbee tiles,” says Duerr. “I thought maybe whoever was doing them maybe caught wise that I was researching them, and was trying to send me a message. And I flipped out.”
In truth, it was a prank call, and the prankster was Foy. The recording wasn’t even meant for Duerr; the intended target was his roommate, who worked with Foy as a ticket taker at the Ritz at the Bourse. The co-worker had recently drawn Foy’s attention to a Toynbee tile near the Liberty Bell. Foy had left the vocoder-manipulated message as a sort of thank-you for this new source of fascination.
When Foy learned of the misfire, he introduced himself to Duerr to apologize. Polite and sweet-voiced with bright eyes and a slight form, it’s easy to imagine that Foy has changed little since that first meeting. At the time, both were in their 20s and had several mutual friends in the Philly music scene, but they’d never met. And after apologizing, Foy was hungry to hear everything Duerr knew about the Toynbee tiles.
At this point, Duerr was used to false leads. What he wasn’t used to was someone whose enthusiasm matched his own. He jumped on the opportunity to share his obsession with a willing audience, and the two talked for hours about the mythology that had been pieced together so far.
“Right then in his room, I decided I was going to make a movie out of it,” says Foy. Duerr agreed that this was a great idea, but didn’t take it particularly seriously. He got more than his share of grand, never-to-be-completed plans from his friends in art circles; no particular reason to take some enthusiastic college kid he’d just met that night seriously. After they went their separate ways at the end of the night, Duerr didn’t think much more about it.
Over the next few years, while Duerr was rocking the cradle of liberty, Foy was in Texas, pursuing no particular course of study at UT Austin. Foy wasn’t a film student, but spent a lot of time in film classes and hanging out with young cinephiles in the burgeoning Austin film scene.
During a recent trip to the country, local installation artist and photographer Lee Tusman was so overwhelmed by its flourishing DIY youth art scene, he’s now invited several young Javanese artists to phone in their work (via the Internet) to have it printed and showcased here in Philly.
PW's Taste of Philly 2014
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4