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Wellspring presents
Joseph Campbell: Mythos (1996)

"Getting into harmony with the universe is the principal function of mythology."
- Joseph Campbell

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: June 06, 2002

Stars: Joseph Campbell
Other Stars: Susan Sarandon
Director: William Free, Roy A. Cox

Manufacturer: Blink Digital
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 09h:18m:20s
Release Date: April 09, 2002
UPC: 790658999008
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B ACC C+

DVD Review

Imagine the best course you ever took in school, the teacher or professor who galvanized and inspired you, the one whose class you'd take the next semester no matter what the subject matter was. Now imagine that there are no papers, no midterm or final, no pop quizzes. That's sort of what you get with this three-disc set, the late Joseph Campbell providing a fascinating walkthrough of the world's religions, with a particular emphasis on Hinduism and Buddhism.

Campbell may be most familiar to film fans as the great scholar of comparative religion whose writings, particularly The Hero With A Thousand Faces, inspired much of the original Star Wars trilogy—it's easy to see Campbell as the Yoda to George Lucas's Luke Skywalker. Here, Campbell seems not to be a revolutionary thinker in his own right, but he has synthesized an enormous amount of material, and does a tremendous job in guiding the uninitiated through the tenets of the religions of the East, while offering frequent, useful analogies to the experiences and traditions of his American audience. The young women at Sarah Lawrence College, Campbell's longtime academic home, were tremendously fortunate to have such a skilled, warm, knowledgeable professor teaching them for so many years.

This is a ten-part series on three discs, drawn from what are called "seminars," but Campbell does all the talking. And that's just fine, given his breadth of knowledge and the millennia of religious traditions he's looking to impart. (Campbell died in 1987, and this series wasn't produced until nine years later; it seems as if the videotapes of these seminars were culled for the best, most straightforward performances of what must have been talks delivered with some frequency.) What's especially impressive is that Campbell speaks entirely without notes, and seems nearly to pulse with excitement over his subject matter.

A caveat for the devout: Campbell can be downright disparaging about the Judeo-Christian tradition, and if you can tamp down your own religious beliefs long enough to listen to what the pious will see as heresy, he's got many interesting things to say. This has principally to do with the concretization of the symbols in Judaism and Christianity, at the expense of a truer understanding of the human soul.

In the first episode, Psyche and Symbol, Campbell talks about the four functions of mythology: they are mystical, cosmological, sociological and pedagogical. One of Campbell's main points is that a mythology is a tool we can use to understand the universe; the point isn't to get caught up in memorization, but to seek illumination. (I wish I had known this in fourth grade, when we were doing endless projects on the gods of the Parthenon.) Here Campbell talks about the Jungian roots of mythology, and even offers sort of a Jung primer; we can easily get rooked by our conscious experiences, but the universe has a lot more to offer. (He shows Dalí's The Persistence of Memory, the melting watches, as a metaphor for consciously understood time.) It's here that Campbell offers what could be the hero's credo: "You follow the way of your own bliss, and you are in a realm for which there are no rules. And since your bliss is not mine, you don't know where you're going. Here you will live a life of danger, creativity, perhaps not a respected life, but certainly an interesting one."

The second installment, The Spirit Land, is devoted largely to "the world of the American Indian," and Campbell talks about the need for this collective mythology: "A society that doesn't have a myth to support and give it coherence goes into dissolution." Without that mystic dimension, it's merely ideology; and here is Campbell's greatest assault on the Western tradition. There's been a "fundamental disengagement," he says, between our religion and our world; we're depending on an understanding of the universe from four thousand years ago in the Middle East to shape our beliefs about our own world. And the role of the gods is to be "transparent to transcendence"—that is, we don't worship the god, the symbol, but recognize that the god is but one manifestation of the energies of the universe. Our Yahweh is closed off to transcendence, he says, and therefore so are we. Campbell knows that many will dismiss him: "People think of myth as other people's religion," though he says that the reams of religious scholarship and interpretation in the West only prove his point: "When the mythology is alive, you don't have to tell anybody what it means."

Episode Three, On Being Human, continues to try to break down the Western distinction between myth and religion: "The material of myth is the material of our life." Here Campbell talks about biologically determined roles for men and women, and how our natures our different, how there are "two entirely different spontaneities." He shows footage of Jane Goodall's chimps to prove his point—much of their behavior is recognizably human—and speaks of beauty and its appreciation as what separates humans from animals. It's our attention to what is "divinely superfluous" that makes us human. Episode Four, From Goddesses to God, concentrates on ancient Egypt and the emergence of city civilizations in the Near East, with particular attention to Osiris and Isis, and the Egyptians' evolved comprehension of their religion: "The gods are understood to be projections of the energy of ourselves."

Episode Five, The Mystical Life, turns to ancient Greece, with special regard to the roots of early Christianity in the Greek traditions—there was a parallel version of Christianity that was developing, soon snuffed out, that didn't, as Campbell complains of Christianity today, "lose the message in the symbol." It's here that Campbell comes closest to stating his own philosophy: "Life has no meaning. What's the meaning of a flower?" But he's no nihilist; he's not looking for meaning, but for enlightened experience.

The second half kicks off with what's perhaps the single best of these episodes, the sixth, The Inward Path. It's here that Campbell looks East, and starts his lectures on Hinduism and Buddhism. Especially good is his discussion of the persistence of the holy river in the world's mythologies, be it the Ganges or the Nile; if we had a good working mythology, he suggests, our own holy river could be the Hudson. This gets a laugh from his New York audience, which only proves his point about how "this concretization is one of the major deceptions in the Western handling of symbols. You don't have to go to Israel to get to the Promised Land." It's the Aristotelian emphasis on rational thinking, and the Biblical accent on ethnic specificity, that keep us out of harmony with the universe. Episode Seven, The Enlightened One, is about the Buddha, and about Buddha consciousness. The Buddha said that "what I teach is not Buddhism, but the way to Buddhism," the "joyful participation in the sorrows of the world," and there are many parallels between Buddha and Christ, "two manifestation of the same elementary idea." Here Campbell talks about the close similarities between purgatory and reincarnation, the opportunity for the unclean soul to right its wrongs; perhaps Dante was a Buddhist at heart.

Episodes Eight and Nine are devoted principally to yoga. The first, Our Eternal Selves, is about disengaging our corporeal body from our spiritual one through yoga, the way to "transcendent energy consciousness." The ninth, The Way to Illumination, traces the different stages of yoga, up through the body, from the base of the spine to the top of the head, each with a philosophical analogue: we start with behaviorism, move up to Freudianism and sex, then to Adler and the will to power, and on up to the higher levels. The last episode, The Experience of God, is about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, sort of the route down back from yoga, starting now at the top, and ending in death, the moment of death as the moment of illumination, a release, an identification with the divine.

This is a very rough going-over of close to ten hours worth of material. And if this is your first exposure to the religious traditions of the East, it may seem a little groovy and out there at first blush. Still, Campbell is such good company and so in command of his material that he's worth listening to, even if you don't register absolutely everything he's talking about. Susan Sarandon serves as host, introducing each episode, providing useful recaps of previous installments, and bridging gaps between different clips of Campbell.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The video used to record the lectures isn't of the highest quality, but you won't be turning to these discs for the cinematography. Colors can be muddy, though the slides Campbell used during his lectures have been augmented with higher quality illustrations, which read much better than the originals.

Image Transfer Grade: C

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: Campbell can be a mesmerizing lecturer, but he has an unfortunate habit of periodically striking his lavaliere microphone, causing some jarring pops on the soundtrack. Other than that, his words are sufficiently clear on the stereo track.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 77 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray Double
3 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Joseph Campbell bibliography
  2. descriptions of related videos
Extras Review: Disc One includes a Campbell biography, Disc Two a selected bibliography. Disc Three has brief descriptions of two other video releases—Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth, the Bill Moyers interviews; and Joseph Campbell: The Hero's Journey, a biography of the man. Weblinks are provided to the Joseph Campbell Foundation and to Wellspring Media.

Extras Grade: C+

 

Final Comments

It's not the most gripping bit of visual entertainment, but Campbell's lectures are deeply nourishing to the soul. If you're familiar with him only from his PBS appearances, or haven't seen him at all, this is a fine, extended look at the man at the top of his game, providing an accessible, extended tour through the world's religions, and works especially well as a primer on Buddhism.

 


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