Resurrect Dead: A Just About Perfect Stab at Subjectivity

Rambling post. Bear with me. It arrives at a sharp point before you know it. A month ago I’m waiting for a D train at West 4th Street after midnight, and a saxophone player of exceptional talent is playing on the platform – the Brooklyn-bound D and F platform being one of the best music venues in the whole MTA system. And who comes limping around collecting money for him, but a man whose face betrayed some kind of organic brain damage from a head injury or Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or something.

I’m a believer that fewer video cameras are better in lots of cultural circumstances. I even got into a fight with a Danish guy at the temple of the Whirling Dervishes in Istanbul one time over the subject. He was aghast that I was taking up a prized seat during one of their weekly performances and hadn’t read so much as a single book about Sufism (fair enough), but he meanwhile had a video camera with a large microphone mounted on it. Whenever you introduce a video camera to an environment, you change it, and it’d better be for a damn good reason.

So there I was: great jazz, brain damaged dude collecting money, video opportunity, and I reach for my iPhone. No! Don’t even. Let it be.

Two weeks later I’m walking down the street in Philly, and my friend points to a linoleum-looking tile in the crosswalk. It’s a “Toynbee tile,” she says, and recommends the 2011 documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles.

Its subject matter is the person or people who started putting tiles in the streets of Philly and elsewhere in the early 1980s that read “Toynbee Idea/In Kubrick’s 2001/Resurrect Dead/On Planet Jupiter.” Fascinating detective story about amateur obsessives delving deep into the world of political paranoiacs and short wave radio in the early 80s.

Great documentaries take you someplace new – in this case, a working class block in Philly. The Philly accent has never sounded so delicious! But writer-director Jon Foy makes two great choices in telling the story: First, he settles on a narrator, the leading detective, who has baggage of his own, an obsessive and a misfit who started documenting the tiles while he worked as a foot messenger in the 1990s. Second, as they exhaust every possibility and start to settle on a lonesome paranoiac in South Philly, Foy shows his detectives attempt to reach out to him, but then…they respectfully back off. It’s clear enough who did it, but there are some places a camera shouldn’t go.

It’s also worth watching to study how nimbly it uses re-enactment footage for things that already happened, presumably before Foy started shooting video of them, and artfully gets into the head of the paranoiac. Foy had the nose to be there with the camera rolling during some key moments in the investigation. Light touch. Just enough of everything. A new favorite.


  1. Nice review. Keep at it.

  2. I just watched this last night. Loved it. So interesting.

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