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updated 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/27/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE POWER OF MYTH

Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the kind of teacher we all hope our children will have one day: passionate, optimistic, witty, curious, fair, eloquent and possessed of a mind that was broad and deep.

Against all odds, he makes the six hours of this six-tape set an exhilarating, constantly provocative experience, even though the screen usually shows only him and Bill Moyers, sitting and talking.

But what talk.

Campbell's specialty was man's myths—the stories, legends and religions found in all human societies. His genius lay in being able to relate those myths to the way we lead (and should lead) our lives, to see common threads in everything from a Woody Allen monologue to a New Guinean cannibalistic ritual, from Stars Wars to Greek myth, from James Joyce to ancient Buddhist traditions.

Campbell recalls his youth: "I wanted to be a synthesis of Douglas Fairbanks and Leonardo da Vinci." He cites a ditty: "Let us worship Zarathustra/ Just the way we useta/ I am a Zarathustra booster/ He's good enough for me." He says, "Every religion, every mythology is true in this sense: It is true as metaphorical of the human and cosmic mystery."

Moyers, executive editor of this series (broadcast on PBS in 1988), serves mostly to ask leading questions and be enthralled—too enthralled at times. While Moyers asks Campbell how his positive view of the universe deals with the reality of evil, he lets him get away with a vague answer: that we have to accept evil and "realize that this horror is the foreground to a wonder." Moyers never confronts Campbell with a specific issue—how one reacts to genocide in Cambodia or Germany, for example.

Generally, though, the interviews, taped in 1986 and 1987 (Campbell died in 1987, at 83), are adroitly handled. Film footage of art works or ceremonial rites or Harrison Ford flying the Millennium Falcon is edited into the conversations. If the questions Moyers tosses are batting practice pitches, Campbell is so quick and strong it hardly matters.

Even those averse to religion or philosophy will have to work at it to be disinterested in Campbell's discussions of love, sex, death, birth and what he calls the "rapture" of life. And while those partial to a given belief may dispute Campbell's ideas on the commonality of myths—he describes varying ideas of gods as "the masks of eternity"—he frames such arguments in the most respectful way, one that speaks of the connectedness of all people across time and space.

Moyers asks Campbell if, knowing what he did of myths, he still had faith in the existence of a deeper mystery in the universe. "I don't have to have faith," Campbell says, with the tiniest of smiles. "I have experience." (Mystic Fire, $29.95 apiece or $149.95 per set; 800-727-8433)

PETER GUNN

If The Power of Myth is a banquet among tapes of TV series, here's some dessert.

It contains two half-hour episodes from the black-and-white 1958-61 detective series, produced and often directed by Blake Edwards and starring Craig Stevens. Stevens had a sardonic, Cary Grantish way with a quip. He was also competent at the rough stuff and nuzzling the nape of the neck of Lola Albright, who played Gunn's girl friend, Edie Hart.

The show was most famous for its Henry Mancini theme and cool jazz sound track, featuring such musicians as vibist Vic Feldman and trumpeter Pete Candoli. Guitarist Laurindo Almeida appears on-camera in one of these episodes, "Skin Deep" (a title Edwards recycled this year).

Gunn's neo-noir, don't-take-it-too-seriously mood didn't hurt. In one scene Stevens enters Mother's, the club where Albright sings, while she's laying out cards to tell her fortune. "According to this," she says, "I should be with Lawrence Welk." (Rhino, $19.95; 800-843-3670)

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