02 September 2012 | The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Everyone loves a mystery, and while I had never heard of these "Toynbee tiles" before, I was instantly intrigued by the cryptic nature of the messages that had been appearing since the early 1980s across a wide area of the eastern U.S. and even in Latin America.

Who wrote these messages? What was their meaning? It was a mystery that intrigued artist Justin Duerr and two of his friends so much that they all made a documentary, "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles" where they spent over a decade trying to unravel the mystery of the message and the messenger.

Except early on in the documentary, it lost me. Accompanying some of the tiles were side texts, including a long one that reads in part:

"John Knight Ridder is the Philadelphia thug hellion Jew who'd hated this movements guts- for years- takes money from the Mafia to make the Mafia look good in his newspapers so he has the Mafia in his back pocket. John Knight sent the Mafia to murder me in May 1991 [illegible] journalists [illegible] then gloated to my face about death and Knight Ridder great power to destroy. In fact John Knight went into hellion binge of joy over Knight-Ridder's great power to destroy."

Okay, now whenever someone starts invoking "the Jews," it's time to stop. The rest of the rant (which mentions Jews again) just stripped the mystery away from the primary tile. (Plus, there was a plaintive cry to "Murder all journalists. I beg you.") Now it just seemed like a manifesto, but I was surprised that the tiler did not mention the Knights Templar because they are always invoked in texts like this.

Of course, this didn't stop the film makers from keeping up the search. On that level, that's good, but the primary actor of the documentary, Justin Duerr, didn't bother to make any analysis of the troubling side text at all. He appeared unperturbed by the message, an unfortunate side effect of looking at things through rose-colored glasses. While it's a credit to the director that Justin's own childhood background as a misunderstood creative type that molded his personality into an independent, find-out-at-all-costs adult is given some treatment, Duerr romanticizes the search and the mysterious artist far too much. Not once does he or his two other cohorts even consider that this isn't an art project but the product of a very disturbed mind.

At the same time, I liked the mystery itself. The message is so simple yet deeply perplexing, though no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't divorce the side text so easily as Duerr and company did. It's not a question of being hypersensitive but a crucial one of context. Treating the Toynbee tiles as a mystery is a terrific hook; dismissing the rantings because you see it as an art project removes an important aspect that perhaps maybe you're not dealing with a reclusive artistic genius, but a disappointed person with a media persecution complex.

The movie, "Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles," is available on Netflix.