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All Things Must Pass: Joan Micklin Silver's 'Between the Lines'

All things must pass. When George Harrison chose that phrase as the title for his first solo album in 1970, he perfectly encapsulated the mood of that moment in cultural history. The Beatles had parted ways, the sixties were no more, and a groundbreaking era was coming to its conclusion. Even as the glory days were coming to an end, Harrison’s use of that expression offered comfort. All things must pass; there is no choice. They may not come to a formal end, but they must pass. The sooner you accept that, the easier it is. 



Seven years later, director Joan Micklin Silver captured this feeling in cinematic form. An ensemble drama centered around an alternative newspaper in Boston, Between the Lines (1977) mourns the death of the Swinging Sixties. Once a powerful social force during the decade's counterculture, The Back Bay Mainline is now under threat of takeover by a media conglomerate. As the days of underground journalism seem to be coming to an end, the paper’s best writers are jaded or looking for an escape route. In this way, the film is a great snapshot of a period in American history: corporations wresting control of the media away from independents, a trend that can also be recognized in the modern-day media climate. 


Between the Lines also deals with the notion that all things must pass in a more personal sense. The newspaper’s potential sale doesn’t just mark the end of a socially conscious journalistic enterprise – it also signifies the death of a friendship group. This concept is what has allowed Silver’s film to stand up, forty-six years on. Working with an exceptional cast including John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Gwen Welles, Jeff Goldblum, Stephen Collins, and Jill Eikenberry (I have to stop somewhere), Silver weaves a tapestry of relationships amongst the paper’s workforce. These are people who have been through the glory days together, and although the screenwriters never felt it necessary to explicitly spell out each of the characters’ affiliations and connections, we quickly get to grips with the group’s various dynamics. 



Stephen Collins’ character Michael is in contact with a publisher in New York as he attempts to write a book. However, his partner Laura (Gwen Welles) makes it clear that she is not going to drop everything and move to a different city just because he expects her to. This narrative strand tells the story of a relationship hitting a roadblock, as the couple begins to realize that they want different things at this stage of their lives. Meanwhile, Bruno Kirby’s cub reporter David follows the trail of a big-shot producer who is well known for record forgery. His subplot symbolizes the vivacious spirit of the up-and-coming young journalists. Inspired by the Woodward and Bernstein generation, the idealistic younger journalists are represented by the film through David, who optimistically walks into a changing media world and unfortunately misses the opportunities he might have had a decade before. 


Harry and Abbie (John Heard and Lindsay Crouse) continue their fiery on/off relationship, struggling to communicate their feelings as they coincide professionally at the Mainline. Alongside these stories are subplots including a performance artist wrecking the office, a broke journalist trying to get paid more for doing no work, and the editor fighting with a manager over advertising space. As this mosaic-like narrative plays out, the viewer feels like Silver’s ensemble is truly a complex group with a long history. 



Because of that history, when it is confirmed that the characters will be parting ways, the audience feels pretty much the same about it as they do. The film’s conclusion strikes a nostalgic note for a time the audience was never shown. For various reasons, the characters realize they will not be seeing each other anymore. They shared their scrappy, artistic heyday, but that’s all over now. They will probably all go on to find peace in their lives – they’re all talented – but it’s the end for that particular group. Things will never be quite the same. 


It is a sorrow that everyone in the audience will have felt at some point in their life – school ending, leaving a job, a friend group parting ways – and yet it is rarely represented on screen in a real way. Movie goodbyes tend to be melodramatic affairs, with a hyperbolic soundtrack telling us that we should be sad that our tearful leads are parting ways. To be fair, this often succeeds in pulling at heartstrings. But what these films don’t do, is tap into the same kind of bittersweetness that Between the Lines achieves. 



From the standpoint of its 1977 release date, Silver’s film can be viewed as a post-mortem of the New Hollywood period itself. By the mid-to-late Seventies, films like Jaws (Spielberg, 1975), Rocky (Avildsen, 1976), and Star Wars (Lucas, 1977) had ushered in the new blockbuster era. Much closer to the sensibilities of Hollywood’s golden age, these films were massive hits at the box office, featuring feel-good stories of underdogs defying the odds in the face of adversity. That is not to say that the aforementioned films were less artistically ambitious or meaningful than the typical New Hollywood release. They all represent great achievements in Hollywood filmmaking, but they do operate on a much grander scale than films that had been championed throughout the decade.


The monumental success of this type of film marked the decline of the smaller, character-focused and socially conscious storytelling that had been prevalent during this time period. As successful as they were during New Hollywood, from 1977 onwards it would be tough to imagine studios producing films like The Graduate (Nichols, 1967), Five Easy Pieces (Rafelson, 1970), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (Altman, 1971), or Fat City (Huston, 1972). 



Between the Lines’ exploration of evolving professional environments can be extended to the film’s industrial context. Changes to the way that studios operate meant that New Hollywood directors, writers, and actors, must have felt the same as the characters in this film. Under pressure to either adapt or be left behind, artists like Joan Micklin Silver were themselves reconciling with the idea that all things must pass.


Between the Lines is streaming on Mubi U.S.


-Luke

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