PARK CITY, Utah - You've seen them, even if you don't remember it. You're crossing the street and something catches your eye, a flash of color amid the rush of feet. You wait for the light to change and the traffic to thin, and there it is: a rectangular shape embedded in the asphalt, with a message etched in silhouette:





Philadelphia is not the only city where the cryptic messages have appeared. They've turned up in New York, Boston, and Kansas City, Mo., and as far afield as Buenos Aires. But the Toynbee tiles, as they've become known by those who have spent years trying to unravel their mystery, are most numerous in the city, and secondary messages carved into the borders of some tiles make specific references to Philadelphia locations and public figures.

Jon Foy, 31, who grew up in Willow Grove, came to the Toynbee tiles mystery relatively late. But in 2005, he was intrigued enough to drop out of film school in Texas and move to Philadelphia to make a documentary about the search for the person behind the tiles, which first began to attract notice in the early 1980s. It took five and a half years, during which Foy cleaned houses and was a subject in in medical studies to finance the film.

On Monday, his efforts bore fruit when Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance prides itself on being a launching pad for new talents, but not many are as raw as Foy. "Not only is this my first film, it's my first screening," he told the audience at the premiere. "It's also my first festival."

Foy's story nearly had a very different ending. After submitting his film to - and having it rejected by - several other festivals, Foy came within hours of missing Sundance's deadline.

It wasn't until the evening before the film was due at the festival's Park City offices that he realized how little time he had. He called his girlfriend, telling her he'd missed his shot, and was heading over to play video games.

"She said, 'Really? Are you sure you want to give up?' " he recalled the day after the premiere. "I thought, hypothetically, I could start burning a DVD now. I could start filling out the form now. I could wire the money now."

He pulled the DVD from his computer, scrawled the film's name on its surface, and hopped on his bike, making it from West Philadelphia to the 30th Street post office just in time.

Irrational dedication comes with the territory, for the Toynbee tiler as well as those on his trail. The central figure in Resurrect Dead is Justin Duerr, an artist and musician who has been cataloging the tiles and searching for their source since the 1990s. In the film, an ex-girlfriend recalls taking what she thought was a romantic jaunt to New York with him, only to realize that Duerr intended to spend the entire trip tracking down and photographing Toynbee tiles.

"I just had a gut feeling that I had some commonality with them," Duerr, 34, said in Park City, where he was attending the premiere. "When I saw them, I'd get really excited about the color choices and the look of them. If I'd made this film, it would be four and a half hours and unwatchable by anyone but me."

Resurrect Dead narrows the search to a handful of suspects, although it seems equally possible that none of them may be correct. An address found on a tile in Santiago, Chile, leads searchers to a South Philadelphia rowhouse whose surrounding streets are scattered with what seem to be prototypes for the Toynbee tiles.

An item in a 1983 Inquirer column by Clark DeLeon recounts a phone call from a man claiming to represent something called the Minority Association, whose members promote the idea of extraterrestrial resurrection. Similar theories surface in a one-act David Mamet play about a late-night call-in show. Mamet says the ideas were his own invention.

Duerr believes he has known the tiler's identity for years, but declined to reveal it except through the film. (He asked that it be kept under wraps until more than a few hundred people had seen the film. The 85-minute documentary has no distributor yet.)

Resurrect Dead's solution is not determinative, but the film presents a compelling web of circumstantial clues that incorporates tombstone carving, shortwave radio broadcasts, and Larry King. (The Toynbee message would seem to refer to the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, and to Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, but what it means is the subject of much conjecture.)

In the tiler's absence, Duerr serves as the film's protagonist, a tireless quester who echoes the tiler's persistence, if not his unsettled ramblings.

Like Foy, Duerr has roots in Philadelphia's punk scene, and it is not difficult to see common ground between the tiler's (presumably) one-man campaign and the do-it-yourself ethos of punk rock. (Foy counts among his primary inspirations local filmmakers Don Argott, Sheena Joyce, and Demian Fenton, who used their connections in the music scene to make the documentary Rock School.) When he wasn't cleaning houses or making money taking part in medical studies, Foy was learning the basics of music composition so he could write the film's score himself.

"There's no punk music in this movie, but if you consider punk rock to be a support network of artists who, no matter what, do their art and that's all that matters - all that mattered to us was to make this movie, and all that mattered to this person was to do their art," Foy said.

Looking back, Foy admits that quitting film school to pursue a mystery that might have no answer was a crazy move. But like so many who have fallen under the tiles' spell through the years, he was helpless to resist.

"It's like a fly falling into a spider's web," he said. "How could you not be interested?"

The Toynbee Tiles

Filmmaker Jon Foy says some of his favorite tiles are located at:

  • 19th Street and JFK Boulevard

  • 15th and Arch Streets

  • Ninth and Market Streets

  • Broad and Fitzwater Streets