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PARK CITY — An amateur investigative filmmaking team seeks to reveal the reclusive street artist behind the cryptic “Toynbee Tiles” in this curious debut doc. Although slotted as a competition title, it rarely rises to the typically high level of Sundance nonfiction selections and is best suited to ongoing festival play and late-night VOD.
The strange tiles are handcrafted plaques roughly the size of license plates apparently assembled from linoleum and paving asphalt, and installed on street surfaces in locations ranging from Boston to Kansas City, but principally centered in Philadelphia. Each bears an arcane four-line message etched in the surface material: “Toynbee Idea/In Kubrick’s 2001/Resurrect Dead/On Planet Jupiter.”
Intrigued by the tiles and their mystifying message, filmmaker Jon Foy teams up with Philadelphia Toynbee enthusiasts Justin Duerr – an artist and musician – Resurrect Dead message board administrator Colin Smith and photographer Steve Weinik to unravel the puzzle.
Attempting to decipher the text, they assume that Toynbee refers to the 20th Century British comparative historian Arnold J. Toynbee and presumed references in his writings to the reanimation of the deceased. “Kubrick’s 2001” is taken as a reference to the 1968 science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick and co-written with novelist Arthur C. Clark. The film posits the next step in human evolution as an encounter with extraterrestrial life in the vicinity of Jupiter – perhaps an oblique reference to resurrecting the dead.
The amateur sleuths begin their quest to unravel the conundrum with several tentative leads, beginning with a Philadelphia street address revealed on a tile installed in Santiago, Chile. They also find an exchange referencing Toynbee and Jupiter in a one-act David Mamet play, 4 A.M., about a radio host and his late-night mystery caller. A brief local newspaper article from the early 1980s mentions a Philadelphia organization dedicated to colonizing Jupiter, known as the “Minority Association,” which the investigators connect with the anonymous tiler.
Plunging into this thicket of interlocking clues, Duerr and his cohorts unravel connections between the artist and the obscure Jupiter society, strange shortwave broadcasts and the conspiracy theory rantings in the “side texts” accompanying many of the tiles.
Based on the similarities among the tiles and the consistency of the messages (sometimes rendered with slight variations), the group assumes they’re the work of one man. Visits to the Philadelphia address and conversations with neighborhood residents indicate the homeowner may be a person of interest. However, since he never answers the door when Duerr knocks or responds to mail or phone calls, the investigators appear to reach a dead end, as all other leads turn cold.
Multihyphenate Foy (who directs, shoots, edits, scores and co-writes) worked on the film with Duerr for a decade, intermittently filming over five years. A mix of interviews, clips, Philadelphia location footage and graphic novel-style interpretive illustrations fill out the doc, although production values rarely rise above the basics, with the exception of Foy’s often evocative score.
As much as it’s a chronicle of the quest to unmask the Toynbee tiler, Foy’s film is also a portrait of the Quixotic sleuths themselves, particularly Duerr, an enthusiastic and capable researcher who comes across as a touch too absorbed with his subject matter.
Although the film reaches a resolution of sorts, it’s too anticlimactic to warrant the participants’ absorption with their search or the doc’s strained air of suspense, leaving the impression that the Toynbee Tiles and their creator represent a diverting if rather inconsiderable urban mystery.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production companies: Land of Missing Parts Productions
Director: Jon Foy
Screenwriters: Jon Foy, Colin Smith
Producers: Jon Foy, Colin Smith
Executive producer: Doug Block
Director of photography: Jon Foy
Music: Jon Foy
Editor: Jon Foy
Sales: Submarine Entertainment
No rating, 85 minutes
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