Danny Ayoub

On Mental Frameworks

I watch a lot of movies. I have a lot of thoughts on them. I have a lot of thoughts on media in general. Every so often I decide it would be a good idea to collate them in some kind of personal movie review database.

The next thought is inevitably about structure: how can I start writing movie reviews without some systematic framework for evaluating them? My thoughts are a random assortment, highly depenent on context. The context of when the movie came out, the context the movie is trying to set itself in, and my personal context of whatever mental themes I have going on at the time, to name a few.

It begs the question: should I try to come up with some standard set of criteria to review a piece of media by? Some framework of structured questions to ask myself when I’m watching something? It sure would make organizing my thoughts easier. But I’m writing this post because I think the answer is a hard no.

Mental frameworks create walls in my mind, a labyrinth of bias that can be stubbornly hard to get rid of once I’ve gotten used to them. In some cases this is useful. In programming it’s important to constantly remember the context you’re working in; the capabilities of the framework you’re using, the “right way” to do something given the program’s architecture. A good programmer who is very familiar with a codebase can consider and understand a specific piece of code’s impact on the entire program.

“But Danny,” you might say, “you’re solving a problem you created. Just don’t do that!” The issue is, for me (and I suspect others), this is an extremely natural and easy thing to do. It’s my brain’s automatic way of approaching a new topic. In some ways I’ve spent most of my life training myself to do this. But it creates hurdles whenever I encounter something that is ostensibly similar to something I’ve experienced but ultimately completely new. It makes it hard to experience that newness.

Meme of a man with a butterfly. The man is labeled 'Me', the butterfly is labeled 'Simulation subplot', and the caption says 'Is this The Matrix?'

To get back on topic, I think if I had some standard set of questions to ask myself about a movie, I would be closing myself off to enjoying it in the way someone with a different set of questions might. Instead, I try to take a step back and use some “question-generator” questions, like:

  • Who does the filmmaker think is the intended audience for this movie? Do they really exist? (Based on a True Story (2023): no)
  • Is this movie a response to some cultural event going on at the time of the movie’s creation? (Shin Godzilla (2016): yes)
  • What is the filmmaker presenting as the “good side” and the “bad side”? How is their bias influencing the “reality” of the movie? Is it believeable?

In particular with foreign or older movies I know next to nothing about the answers to these questions. But they tend to lead to great wikipedia rabbit holes. And I find myself more able to approach pieces of media that are farther outside of my comfort zone when I can think like this.