Joan Micklin Silver
Michael J. Pollard
1 Hr., 41 Mins.
Between the Lines
September 14, 2020
n Joan Micklin Silver’s equal parts bighearted and devastating Between the Lines (1977), journalists are put on a pedestal — elevated like characters in a soap opera. The film covers a particularly rocky period in the lives of the staff writers of The Back Bay Mainline, an alt-weekly based in Boston. The newspaper is poised for a corporate buyout — a predictable, tragic fate that will apparently never die in this industry. Its posse of 20-something-
year-old writers is now more than ever mulling over whether they should stay with this low-paying, soon-to-be-a-sellout gig or try their luck elsewhere.
One of the senior writers, self-satisfied Michael (Stephen Collins), has gotten a book deal, and is planning on leaving the paper for New York. His girlfriend, another staff writer named Laura (Gwen Welles), is dizzy trying to decide if she wants to stay with him (which means she leave both her friends and the pub behind) or remain in Boston, keeping a job for which she has admittedly lost some of her passion. There is a will-they-or-won’t-they tug of war between older staffer (and purportedly greatest asset) Harry (John Heard) and photographer Abbie (Lindsay Crouse). Their misaligned intentions will undoubtedly infect interpersonal ties in the office if things get too out of hand.
The screenplay, by Fred Barron and David M. Helpern, Jr., generates authentic-feeling dynamics and distinctive characters; the cramped office in which these people spend so much time starts to feel as well-worn to the viewer. The subtle detail I most liked in Between the Lines was that although these people are variably earnest and prone to self-deprecation, nearly all of them share the almost debilitating trait most dedicated writers do: such devotion to their craft that whether intentional or not, it comes at the cost of most everything else in their lives. They’re all acutely aware of this but, unavoidably, love what they do too much. “In this business there just isn’t any room for people who want to work 9 to 5 and go home to a soft bed,” remarks David (Bruno Kirby), a burgeoning, naïve investigative journalist on staff. He doesn't sound dismayed at this reality — more conspicuous is his pride that in this profession there is
room for him.
Intense relationships among staffers backdropped by buyout fears — how many newspaper employees have lived through the same? I knew Between the Lines would strike a chord with me, regardless of its ultimate effectiveness, almost as soon as I started to get acquainted with this paper and these staffers. When I got my first real writing job after college, members of our miniature, underpaid newsroom bonded so much, and were so quick to welcome any newcomer, that when someone left about five months after I’d started, it was surprising to me whenever I would remind myself that I’d only known this person for a few months and not a few years. Part of this closeness, not uncommon for people in this profession, comes from a shared feeling of being overworked and underappreciated. You feel sometimes as though you only have each other to rely on.
I wish, though, that Between the Lines was harder on the misogyny and general egoism exhibited by the majority of the male characters. I couldn’t sense if the movie was attempting to frame both as mostly innocuous or if they were meant more to function as testaments to how both can color an office’s atmosphere and the quality of the content produced. Intentions are a little more obvious during one well-realized sequence where Abbie accompanies Harry while he’s out reporting to take pictures. He’s doing a story on what it’s like to be a female stripper, and his questions are invasive and, at their core, steeped in male chauvinism. He gets frustrated with Abbie when she has a dialogue with the subject (Marilu Henner) and they hit it off. We think (and it seems like the film does too) about how much better this story might have turned out had it been written by Abbie. When she asks questions, they come from a place of compassion and genuine interest, whereas there are exoticism and infantilization found in Michael’s inquiries. Nevertheless, the finished article, which Abbie isn’t in a position to write, anyway, will be straight male gaze-driven, ultimately thwarting the humanization that is on the face of it trying to be done. When looking at the other primary couple in Between the Lines, we can see that Michael’s narcissism has taken a toll on Laura’s enthusiasm for her art; his infatuation with a perceived sense of intellectual superiority has left her in many ways associating writing as a medium with his insufferable up-his-assness.
Silver herself worked for The Village Voice before becoming a filmmaker. Between the Lines was her second feature (following 1975’s acclaimed Hester Street, starring Carol Kane); her insider awareness strengthens the movie’s ethos. Of course these fictional office dramas ring so true — she isn't parachuting into a new world. The movie resonates, vindicating familiar pains. Though I can't say it isn't a little depressing that Between the Lines, which concludes (spoiler alert) with the buyout we and the characters had been dreading, remains an appropriate conclusion. Has there ever been a time where working in media hasn’t been so precarious, vulnerable to avarice at the top? The way things are heading in our current landscape, where smaller but dedicated outlets like The Back Bay Mainline are having an increasingly difficult time surviving (that is if very many are still surviving to begin with), maybe someday the events seen in Between the Lines will look like a best-case scenario — a dream. Too pessimistic? B+