This lesser-known curiosity from one of the guiding female voices in independent film in the 1970s and 1980s, Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, Crossing Delancy), 1977’s Between the Lines is her second feature about co-workers at a Boston alt-weekly newspaper that has seen its groundbreaking influence dwindle as it faces the threat of a corporate takeover. The impressive ensemble includes John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum (particularly funny as the paper’s music writer), Jill Eikenberry, Stephen Collins, Gwen Welles, Bruno Kirby, and Joe Morton, all of whom mix and mingle in funny and challenging ways that seem completely believable and slightly inappropriate (especially when seen through modern eyes). But the sexual politics of the office are not just on display; they are dealt with in a surprisingly contemporary fashion that seems advanced for the culture of the ’70s.
Standout performances come from Heard (a writer) and Crouse (a photographer) as an on-again/off-again couple, in which she is clearly the one with a higher intellect, but he’s the paper’s star reporter so must be treated with more reverence. One of the film’s most memorable sequences comes when the two end up at a strip club to do a profile on the dancers and end up interviewing one of the establishment’s more personable employees (a winning Marilu Henner). The scene is a power struggle between the two journalists for running the show, and it typifies the sexual dynamics of the time so brilliantly you can both feel how much these two care about each other while he still attempts to marginalize her role in the process.
Less interesting is the relationship between would-be novelist Collins with Welles, who is expected to follow him to New York when his book is sold and he wants to move there. She’s being asked to leave behind her work and friends for a man who treats her poorly. While it’s certainly no stretch to imagine a person would behave as Collins does here, his performance seems flat and cardboard-cutout arrogant. And Welles is so good, she underscores how underwritten his role is.
There’s not much by way of story in Between the Lines and a great deal of the dialogue feels spontaneous and improvised, which only adds to the film’s authenticity. Imagine if you dropped the cast of Return of the Secaucus Seven into a workplace drama, and you have a good sense of the feel of this small but worthy movie. The effort works best as a lovely time capsule into an era that simultaneous bygone and quite relevant.
The film screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday, April 6 at 3pm; Monday, April 8 at 8pm; and Wednesday, April 10 at 6pm.
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