Review – Tao: The Tranquility of the Surreal

The Tranquility of the Surreal
by Sophia M.

“Tao” is a short cinematographic Flash poem, created by Alan Sondheim and Reiner Strasser, that combines film, poetry and limited interactivity with haunting, melodic music to create a surreal yet soothing meditative experience. By utilizing the strengths of the work’s three individual elements to create cohesion and mood, “Tao” presents an ethereal moment that is simultaneously haunting, peaceful, beautiful and surreal.

“Tao” consists of three main elements: two screens playing the same 38 seconds of film, a short poem, and an audio track. The film shows identical views of Great Salt Lake in Utah (and in the distance the shores of Antelope Island) as viewed from the window of a moving vehicle. Both films feature an animated element of a large, amorphous, disk-like shape (comprised of fragmented frames of the film) that floats, pivots and undulates across the screens. As the film plays, a red line scrolls beneath the screens and slowly reveals the three lines of a short poem. As the words unfold, the reader can interact with the video, rotating both films so that the road either slopes into itself, away from itself, or progresses in tandem. The separate elements of film and text are united by the work’s soundtrack, which consists of a shakuhachi (Japanese flute) and faint, ghostly singing.

Taken separately the individual elements of poetry, film and song are strong enough to stand as complete pieces on their own, however, it is the seamless melding of these fractions that makes “Tao” a truly impressive work. The Taoist idea of existing in harmony is exemplified by the way the three media mesh together to form a cohesive whole, and the perfect balance allows the work to achieve a moment of tranquility that is unusual for the often frenetic, overwhelming medium of electronic literature.

As a meditative, transient moment, “Tao” is a success, however, the overall tranquility does not mean that “Tao” lacks conflict. Chaos and violence are suggested within the text of the poem, creating a dichotomy between the meditative balance of the form and the hostility of the content. Explosions are suggested in the text “earth blown out to stars,” however, far from being grisly, there is a serene acceptance of the chaos, as if it takes place in another place and time. The surreal quality of the film and the haunting tone of the music denude “Tao” of a firm grounding in reality, allowing it to escape into the realm of the surreal, further achieving the effect of an otherworldly calm.

Though short in length, “Tao” is a strong poetic work that functions within a realm of dualities that are simultaneously placid and violent, realistic and surreal. Running along the highway of a haunting melodic soundscape, “Tao” delves deep into the poetry not only of words, but also of images and sounds. Uniting elements of video, text and song, “Tao” achieves the difficult task of balancing poetic tranquility with concepts of destruction and disillusionment, creating an idyll moment of digital calm that is a pleasure to watch and absorb.


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