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Joseph Campbell The Power of Myth

Wellspring // Unrated // April 1, 2002
List Price: $59.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted April 28, 2002 | E-mail the Author

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 Cambell's teachings are an exception to the rule. They 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 life a satisfying meaning.

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, and the various erotic objectifications of women in society. 6. Masks of Eternity - Campbell tackles the big issues - God, eternity, religion, as addressed by several religions.

Bill Moyer's 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 can 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. Everythings '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 barbaric ideas. He acknowledge Eros as an important force in living, something that organized religions sometimes seem bent upon denying.

Organizing the 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.

The Winstar DVD cannot be faulted for quality. The video recording of the late '80s still holds up, and dual cameras capture Moyers' and Campbell's reactions without resorting to editorial cheats.

The show has a text biography and bibliography for Joseph Campbell, plus a gallery of key artwork, a video trailer, and some suggested weblinks for further study. The educational utility of the show is obvious. Savant had no trouble watching both it and the complimentary release Joseph Campbell Mythos ... yes, about 16 cumulative hours, spread over a week.

A final extra on The Power of Myth is an interview with George Lucas, who sort of holds the status of 'most famous acolyte' of Campbell, because of his acknowledgements 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, and Campbell himself has no trouble at all describing the world of Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi as a new myth, after the form of our atavistic core myths. As popular as Star Wars is, the idea that it is a new 'classic' myth should be resisted in any form ... yes, the 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 the species, is a good example of the debasing power of commercialism.

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


1. Paul Moyer's 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.

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