The Asylum

The epigraphic video essay form has long been a favorite among academic practitioners. Conjoining film or television footage with excerpts from an apt academic text can indeed facilitate comprehension of both. But the most interesting examples of this approach often marry up movie scenes with fragments of a text that has no immediate bearing on the film in question: a text that wasn’t written with that film (or any film) in mind. This effort by Ariel Avissar is a great example.


Avissar chooses excerpts from Elaine Showalter’s The Female Malady, a study of the shifting cultural outlook on (and treatment of) mental illness in women. (In fact, the video essay starts with an excerpt from another book. It quotes Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a very appropriate way to start this essay, as it turns out). Showalter’s words are illustrated with excerpts from the television series Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, and with a couple of shots from the theatrical release US.


Actress Elisabeth Moss is in all those productions, and thus serves as the visual red thread throughout the essay. But more importantly, her characters’ uses of mirrors and make-up, and their reactions to other women engaging in the same rituals, beautifully enhance the points that Showalter’s writing is making. This inspired coupling results in a video essay that truly is greater than the sum of its parts.