Full Frame this year offered a programmatic theme notable in the variety of its manifestations: obsession. Obsessive chess players went mad, obsessive collectors offered a giddy view of their life’s work, obsessive chefs and puppeteers achieved their respective dreams, to the world’s benefit. Nowhere was the issue more directly confronted than in Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.
The riddle at the heart of director Jon Foy’s first foray into moviemaking has been written into tiles and embedded hundreds of times onto roadways in major cities from New York to St. Louis, with a few in South America for good measure. Proclaiming the message “Toynbee idea / In Kubrick’s 2001 / Resurrect Dead / On Planet Jupiter,” always in the same rounded block letters, the tiles so captivate Philadelphia resident Justin Duerr that he launches an all-out hunt to uncover the person behind the cryptic “art project”—as Duerr eventually, unconvincingly dubs the tiles—and, naturally, its meaning. He is soon joined by two like-minded amateur sleuths, with whom he first connected through the Internet. Big surprise, right?
Billed and constructed as a whodunit, Resurrect Dead is marginally more complicated than that, but only marginally. Duerr’s background and personal struggles are tucked around a line-by-line breakdown of the tiles (did we really need to take extra time for an image of Jupiter to illustrate line four?), several divergent leads, and some wild running with pure conjecture. Fair warning: Anyone watching this story unfold with a logical mind or an appreciation for common detective story tropes will get a little frustrated. When Justin takes for granted a sidebar note in which the so-called tiler professes to be just one man, our hero never seems to consider the possibility that someone pasting an incomprehensible message around the world might not be the first person to take at his word. When we discover our prime suspect keeps birds, after learning that Justin kept birds as a child, the connection, tailor-made for any noir-ish novelist, remains undiscussed. When a stakeout seems a blatantly easy solution, the boys attend a short wave radio convention. That this trio does seem to uncover the real perpetrator is a triumph of their irrepressible enthusiasm as much as their crack detective work; after further consideration, you’ll realize that a single early lead was the only one they really needed. Yet it’s contagious. Overlooking the film’s pacing issues and an amateurish overuse of titles, you do begin to feel for these geeky fans of an expansive, truly perplexing mystery.
What limits the film’s impact, however, is that Duerr and company’s dedicated and well-intentioned investigation raises questions that require but do not receive on-screen consideration. Namely, why does this rambling note matter? Sure, it’s in many locations, and some people have taken a more-than-usual notice, but Foy’s obsession with Duerr’s obsession blocks out the real possibility that this film undermines the very thing these men are trying to honor: the enigma itself. After all, who’s more obsessed here, the original creator or the man working with singular passion to track him down? Granting Duerr his professed respect for the tiler’s mission (a mission made only slightly more coherent to the audience by the end of the film than it was at the beginning), why is he and Foy outing him by name to the (admittedly small) documentary film festival-going public? And is Duerr concerned that the now-public discoveries of his search will, Heisenberg-like, alter the private, one-shot impressions the individual tiles were laid down to make? In short, this is an obsession in search of a deeper understanding.
This year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival ran from April 14 - 17.