The power of myth. In his new 6-part series, Bill Moyers chats with a compelling thinker who persuasively links modern themes to remote times and places
Moyers: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth PBS, Monday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings. Premi`ere of six-part weekly series. Presented by WNET, New York, and WTTW, Chicago. When `Star Wars'' opened in 1977, it had a dazzling impact - on the eye, on the imagination, on box office receipts.
At that time someone asked me what made it so popular with young people. With no great insight, I said it wasn't spacecraft or optics - though they helped. It was because in a clinical age deprived of hero lore, the story offered an instant mythology.
To the late Joseph Campbell, that ``instant'' mythology is as old as human thought. In ``The Hero's Adventure'' - the first segment of this new TV series - it's among myriad examples of the ``typical hero sequence of action'' he describes in impressive breadth and detail during this absorbing and audacious TV program.
Audacious because, after all, it's six hours of prime time on a subject that has all the viewer appeal of an anthropology lecture. But imagine a man whose two early heroes were silent-film swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and Leonardo, and you'll have a clue about the extraordinarily compelling thinker who talks through most of those six hours. Forty years ago Mr. Campbell's book ``Hero of 1,000 Faces'' brought him fame. When he died last fall, he was working on a ``historical atlas of world mythology,'' called ``The Masks of God,'' that would have distilled his life's knowledge.
Meanwhile, he's had a lifelong impact on all kinds of people. One of them is ``Star Wars'' creator George Lucas, who credits Campbell with much of the inspiration for that film cycle - and for ``Willow,'' which opens today. The first five ``Myth'' shows, in fact, were taped at Lucas's Skywalker Ranch in California.
Although many will certainly disagree with his psychological and religious points, Campbell's message is delivered in a palatably cool tone. He appears settled, tranquil, speaking of ancient mysteries like a mechanic patiently explaining how your carburetor works. Yet there's such electricity you'd think he was looking back on the life of one of his heroes rather than a life of the mind. To Campbell, mythology was the song of the universe, ``music so deeply embedded in the collective unconscious that we dance to it, even when we can't name the tune.''
And so many examples are cited to demonstrate the place of myth in mankind's basic nature - King Arthur stories, Iroquois legends, religious stories. With deeply satisfying logic, Campbell links modern themes to remote times and places, making them part of a grand whole that some feel goes a long way toward telling human beings who they are and what they would like to be.
Campbell has been called the professor everyone wishes he had. But even if you'd had him, Bill Moyers wouldn't have been there to help you soak it all up in conversational form. He taped 23 hours with Campbell, boiling it down to this series.
In shaping what remains, Mr. Moyers is a marvelously skilled viewer's agent who asks common-sense questions in a ``Yeah, but'' tone. He poses little objections while shrewdly furthering the lesson. There's an air of the real world. You don't feel you're being sold anything.
And it is Moyers who often helpfully summarizes. At one point near the end of ``The Hero's Adventure,'' he says, ``So these stories of mythology are simply trying to express a truth that can't be grasped in any other way.'' Campbell answers, ``It's the edge ... between what can be known and what is never to be discovered, because it is a mystery transcending human research.'' Moyers, knowing the viewer is still not quite satisfied, asks: ``Why are stories important at getting at that?'' Campbell: ``It gives life a new zest, a new balance, new harmony.''
Although it's basically talking heads, the production does shower you with visuals - film clips, photos, paintings. At times it's too eager to demonstrate vitality of subject and treatment. Speak of human birth as a rite of the hero, and you'll see a human embryo clips. If Campbell talks of the draft as a hero's rite, you know we'll be seeing recruits.
And sometimes Campbell seems a man with a myth for all seasons. Moyers says such talk is fine for a creative type like Lucas or a scholar like Campbell. But what about people living a mundane life?
It still applies, Campbell insists, pointing out, ``The world is full of people who have stopped listening to themselves.'' Some will say he stretches the hero model to cover anything - including modern Angst and the ego. There's a sense of Campbell's having it all figured out - man, myths, motivation. He even takes a guess at future mythology - the planet with all its people as one world floating in space. For this show, there's little mystery to the mysteries of life.
But so what? Campbell is a great teacher speaking to a global village - or at least a national one - on a theme cutting across cultural barriers. For a medium rife with soaps, cop shows, and 30-second political ads, that's not a bad move.