Listen up. This is important.

There’s a test people apply to movies and television called the Bechdel Test. Here’s the gist from Wikipedia: “The Bechdel test asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. The requirement that the two women must be named is sometimes added.”

All well and good. I’m not opposed to this kind of yardsticking. Good parts for women are few and far between. But there’s another test we badly need. We’ve needed it since Hollywood began, and it doesn’t exist so I’m making it up. I call it the Riskin Test.

Robert Riskin was a screenwriter. He won an Academy Award for the great Clark Gable movie It Happened One Night. His long association with that movie’s director, Frank Capra, produced an often-told Hollywood anecdote. According to legend, Riskin tired of Capra boasting that his films featured “The Capra Touch”, as if they’d sprung fully-formed from Capra’s cranium. One day, Riskin bound together one hundred and twenty blank pages and delivered them to his director. An attached note read, “Put the Capra Touch on this!”

Petulant perhaps, but a point well-made.

This is a story no one ever seems to learn from. Writers put words on pages. Actors say those words while directors and crew people film them. The screenplay is the blueprint for the movie. To invoke a cliche, “if it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage”.

Screenwriters are often treated as second-class citizens in Hollywood. They’re commodities, and after years of serial abuse, they act like it. Even the upper echelon writers talk with a deference paid to the System that makes me sad. I always sense Stockholm Syndrome in their tone.

Anyway, the Riskin Test…

Any film criticism that hails the director without mentioning the screenwriter fails the Riskin Test.

Why do I think we need it? Because every bit of film criticism I read (or even have read) fails the test.

The reviews for Captain America Civil War reminded me how often critics lean on the Director as Author cliche. The phrases “the Russo Brothers did this” or “the Russo Brothers did that” popped up again and again. Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of “Civil War”, have talent, and I take nothing away from them. That said, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wrote “Civil War”. I never saw their names mentioned once. Too bad since most of what critics attributed to the Russos were things Markus and McFeely did. If it’s dialogue; if it’s plot, chances are excellent the writers did it. If it’s staging and cutting, it’s the work of the director. (Although not necessarily in the case of the cutting since, often, a fine editor more than pulls his or her own weight.)

I want the Riskin Test to go viral. If you care about movies, tell your friends. Apply it as you read movie criticism. It’s time — after more than one hundred years of filmed entertainment — for scribes to get their due.

Remember: The Riskin Test. (Or #riskintest.)

Any film criticism that hails the director without mentioning the screenwriter fails the Riskin Test.

Spread the word.

The Riskin Test
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