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Bill Moyers' contribution to Public Television has been nothing short of remarkable; a son of Texas ministers whose compassionate, humanistic point of view is politically unclassifiable, he's the perfect conduit to the wisdom of Joseph Campbell. 1
The shows are models of organization and presentation, each a direct interview where Moyers brings out Joseph's ideas, richly illustrated with museum-quality images of ancient cosmologies and art. Moyers doesn't so much as interview Campell as make him even more accessible than he already is. Watching the shows can be done in almost any order, or piecemeal, but the moment Campbell opens his mouth, he says things that strike us as relevant, in the 'revelation' sense of the word. Very good college lecturers give us the illusion that they're pulling back the curtains of our dulled minds to expose real Truths - and Campbell does that every few minutes.
Part of Campbell's credibility is that he's not selling anything - he's not a crackpot, and he hasn't any belief system or ideology he wants to inculcate. Everything's 'on the up & up', intellectually speaking. He's also not afraid to bring his truths out into the real world of controversial ideas and social hot topics. Sex and religion are simple realities to him - religious fundamentalists of all persuasions might be revulsed at his openness to new ideas and his acceptance of the beauty of older, more primitive ones. He acknowledges Eros as an important force in living, unrestrained by conservative dogma.
Organizing those disorganized remnants of ancient rituals and modern religious rites with which modern man no longer identifies, Campbell identifies the purpose and meaning of things like sacrifice and mysticism in ways we can understand. Most impressive are passages later in the show where he touches upon the reality of his own mortality. Directly after describing the 'search for bliss' that gives one satisfaction with one's life, he describes what it means to have the strength to face the unknown of Death with expectant anticipation instead of blind fear. It's quite inspiring.
Our world is so full of lies, large and small, that Joseph Cambell's Truths are a major blessing. The content of this DVD is a small miracle, an introduction to Campbell that also manages to let him express some of his most profound concepts. Cambell comes across as an extremely likeable man, witty, honest ... no wonder he was one of the most beloved and respected college professors in the country.
Every college has its superstar lecturers; when I went to UCLA it seemed every department had some reigning sage wearing a halo of wisdom. We attended their lectures in respectful silence - these were the ones to listen to, even if you argued with their teaching assistants later. I once listened to the notorious Angela Davis from a crowded doorway at the height of her notoriety - and she held her audience like a pro.
Joseph Campbell taught for decades at the college level. At the end of his years he was no declining Mr. Chips, a dotard to whom everyone paid respect, but had forgotten why. He was a vibrant communicator to the end, to which these shows can attest.
Mythos is a direct, quality recording of a series of his lectures, and we should consider ourselves lucky that someone had the presence of mind to undertake them while he was still in a state of good health. Using simple slides projected on a blackboard, Campbell takes us methodically through his concept of the human experience as 'one great story'. Instead of being prompted by an interviewer, the content is presented as if we were his undergraduates.
There's more direct psychology here, as he graphs out Jungian concepts with simple line diagrams. He explicates ancient cosmologies, or 'world view' diagrams of how primitive societies perceived the universe, very clearly. And he uses humor well - not clever jokes, but self-deprecating asides, such as when he produces a 40 year old magazine and admits that he was a subscriber with its first issue.
Susan Sarandon's introductions and 'bumpers' interpolated between major lecture topics are mainly a commercial marketing hook, that don't quite mesh. They're rather dry, and you get the idea that the packagers are trying to make the show sexy. Susan exudes warmth, shall we say, in any environment. The show cuts away to her curled up in an armchair, in a veddy traditional dark-panelled, leather-upholstered room ... like she's the Aphrodite of Masterpiece Theater. Charming though she may be, the speeches prepared for her aren't very inspiring, and you're tempted to skip through to get to the professor once again.
Neither disc can be faulted for quality. The video recording of the late '80s still holds up in both cases. Whoever organized the shooting of the lectures on Mythos did a nice job of catching Campbell's rhythm on the fly, with few technical problems. It's much closer to studio stage-lighting than the ragged quality we're used to seeing on Universities' own AV tapes of lectures ... not polished, but never distracting from the content.
Mythos has no real extras beyond a text biography and bibliography for Joseph Campbell. Moyers' show has similar text extras, plus a gallery of key artwork, a video trailer, and some suggested weblinks for further study. The educational utility of both shows is obvious, and teachers will immediately figure out which is more appropriate to their needs. Savant had no trouble watching both ... yes, about 16 cumulative hours, spread over a week.
A final extra on The Power of Myth is an interview with George Lucas, who presently holds the status of Campbell's 'most famous acolyte', because of his acknowledgement of the master's first book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces as a core influence on the Star Wars cultural empire. The Lucasfilm ranch served as the interview location for Moyers' show, and Lucas' name was a natural to help promote Campbell and his teachings. This is perhaps the best side effect of Star Wars, and it in no way interferes with the messages, but the added interview is mildly irritating just the same. Lucas credits his pastiche of themes as being inspired by the mythical teachings of the master. As popular as Star Wars is, the idea that it is a new 'classic' myth should be resisted in any form ... yes, its outline conforms to some of Campbell's concepts, but the very idea that this basically shallow screenplay is a new myth that is re-invigorating our species, is a good example of the debasing power of commercialism.
But, hey, if it popularizes the Master's teachings, more power, I suppose. And by the Master, I mean Joseph Campbell, not Yoda. I've only now realized that the Power of Myth in the title rather uncomfortably corresponds to the power of 'The Force' in the George Lucas movie franchise.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Bill Moyers' PBS shows are always about pressing subjects few other
people will tackle - last year's was a series about Death and Dying that was very direct and personally
useful. When he tackles political subjects, you never know he's advocating directions opposed
180o to those of our government. A series show last year about
special interests controlling media in the country was called Free Speech for Sale. Before
it was over you wanted to march in the streets and protest the selling of our rights - the issue
in his hands came across as being neither left or right in the political spectrum.