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Savant Reviews:

Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth
Joseph Campbell Mythos

Two separate releases reviewed by Glenn Erickson

It seems every time that PBS showed this series on the air, people asked me to tape it for them. I ended up giving away at least three home-taped copies, with my hand-lettered title "Joseph Campbell and the Temple of Doom" on the box. Later on I kicked myself for not buying an expensive laserdisc of the 6 episodes in a large box.

There's precious little that qualifies as 'wisdom' in this modern world that doesn't need qualification or a willing suspension of disbelief, but Joseph Campbell's teachings are an exception to the rule. These two programs are very different but equally eye (and soul) - opening. His teachings bring together aspects of anthropology, psychology, and theology in a very persuasive, all-encompassing vision of our existence that starts from the myths of antiquity - the myths that exist almost unchanged in the major religions. In Campbell's view, their receding influence has left modern man adrift without a buttressing belief system to give our lives the satisfying meaning we need.

Joseph Campbell
and the Power of Myth

Winstar/Mystic Fire
1988 / color / 1:33 flat full frame / +/- 360 min.
Starring Joseph Campbell, Bill Moyers
Produced by Catherine Tatge, Joan Konner, Alvin H. Perlmutter
Executive Editor Bill Moyers

Synopsis of six episodes:

1. The Hero's Adventure - links the mythical heroic figure to our own life adventures. 2. The Message of the Myth - Creation myths that served in ancient times are no longer providing what modern man needs. 3. The First Storytellers - The place of ritual and the tribal Shaman is discussed in terms of sacrifice, rites of passage, and accepting Death as rebirth. 4. Sacrifice and Bliss - Finding our place in our personal world requires creating a new concept of the mythic role of sacrifice. 5. Love and the Goddess - The idea of romance is a fairly new one, but not the various erotic objectifications of women. 6. Masks of Eternity - Campbell tackles the big issues - God, eternity, religion, as addressed by several religions.

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.

Joseph Campbell Mythos
1997 / color / 1:33 flat full frame / +/- 600 min.
Starring Joseph Campbell, Susan Sarandon
Original Music Peter Kater
Produced by Adam Taylor, Stuart A. Goldman, Ricky Sydell, William Free


A number of Joseph Campbell college lectures are hosted by actress Susan Sarandon. Taped in 1986 and 1987 as Campbell lectures to his students, this is a recording of one of his courses from begining to end, with all of his ingratiating lecture hall manner intact.

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,
Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth rates:
Movie: Excellent, 2 discs, 6 hours
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: George Lucas Interview, text biographies and bibiliographies, Art Gallery, Trailer
Packaging: Double disc NexPak case
Reviewed: April 27, 2002

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Joseph Campbell
Movie: Excellent, 3 discs, 10 hours
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: Bibliography, Biography
Packaging: Triple disc NexPak case
Reviewed: April 27, 2002


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.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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