Here is why the current trend in documentary filmmaking, the re-purposing of a 'standard talking heads doc' with a more structured genre-framework (eg. Man on Wire, The Cove, King of Kong), has yet to find its quality ceiling or go stale. Who would have thought a quirky street art mystery (following on the heels of the wildly successful Exit Through The Gift Shop) would ultimately be about respect, community, passion and human dignity? Prepare to have your mind expanded.
What do Stanley Kubrick, Street Art, a renown meta-history professor, short-wave radio, David Mamet, the construction of a mammoth telescope in Chile, bringing the dead back to life and pigeon husbandry have in common? In Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, Jon Foy and Justin Duerr tackle the vexing mystery of message-laden linoleum tiles that have been fused into the asphalt of various North American city streets since the early 1980s. All feature the cryptic near-haiku:
In Movie 2001
On Planet Jupiter
Is it a decade spanning street-art conspiracy or the ravings of a lone unhinged individual? The source of the tiles have captured the imagination of many people, before the internet-age, but when websites started to pop up that tracked the location of the tiles (mostly the US Eastern seaboard, and few places in South America) it offered the opportunity to bring some of the more passioned researchers together. Leading this real life 'Lone Gunmen' trio is Justin Duerr a Philly artist with a unique background (lots of bullying, life on the streets, a dramatic number of tattoos, including one on his skull) and a life-long obsession with the tiles which seem to have started in his hometown. Piecing together clues in the 'sidebar text' of some of the tiles (including a Philadelphia street address, along with media coverage of the Toynbee Idea Tile phenomenon from around the country, and tonnes of emails gathered on the main website dedicated to the mystery, Duerr and his two accomplices Colin Smith and Steve Weinik take a solid run at the mystery where others (including other documentary films) have failed. Their sleuthing yields truths both subtle and obvious, not unlike the tile message itself.
The compelling, and (frankly) quite addicting, result is somewhere between Errol Morris and 1990s era Chris Carter. The soundtrack of the film, written by the director, has a beckoning melody that becomes a character in much the same way as a John Williams or Bernard Herman score does. The final moments may be seen as a cop-out for the mystery (although I'm a firm believe in J.J. Abram's theory that the Riddle Box is best remained sealed) but it is a remarkable score for empathy and respect. At the end of the day, the tracker and the quarry may have a surprising amount in common, enough so that a spiritual communication is effected by words, linoleum and tar-paper.
[Let this be a lesson to listen to the festival publicist for recommendations. If only a fraction of the nearly 200 HotDocs titles proves to have the depth and engagement of Resurrect Dead this should be one hell of a year for the festival.]