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OLD TIMES mean good times. The newspaper staffers in Between the Lines long for the return of a golden age of personal and journalistic integrity, when they were faithful to one another and their common cause. That cause--attacking the evils of the establishment--still remains, but their own commitment to it has waned. Unhappy romance and journalistic rivalry have split the formerly harmonious staff of The Back Bay Mainline, and the paper itself reflects this dissension. "We're still about telling the truth," the Mainline's editor insists at the beginning of the film. By this point, however, nobody seems to believe him.
Written by ex-Phoenix staffer Fred Barron, Between the Lines recounts the story of the takeover of a once-radical paper by a new corporate management dedicated solely to profits. The plot involves the assumption that a newspaper, like a child, can experience a loss of innocence. Against the backdrop of this loss, several indecently good-looking and almost equally likeable newspaper types play out their individual comedies of love and ambition.
The characters in Between the Lines come in pairs. Michael, a handsome writer selfishly intent on finishing his first novel, is married to vulnerable-looking Laura (Gwen Welles). Their opposite numbers are Harry (John Heard) and Abbie (Lindsay Crouse), a writer and photographer whose on-again, off-again relationship composes thz film's central thread. Heard is so blondly good-looking, gifted and vulnerable, that it's hard at times to understand Crouse's reluctance to stay paired up with him. The chief explanation the film offers is that Abbie is in some ways Michael's counterpart--as laden with egotism as she is with talent.
The other characters are less well-developed. Max, the eccentric rock critic, serves as a vehicle for easy humor, often at the expense of Stanley, the beleaguered ad manager. Rounding out the staff at each end are Lynn (Jill Eikenberry), the secretary, David (Bruce Kirby), the cub reporter, and Frank (Jon Korkes), the conscientious editor who is undercut repeatedly by his boss. What they all have in common, besides their affiliation with what Max calls the "Monongahela Backwash," is the low-keyed energy with which they are played. Michael, Laura, Harry et al seem like real people, even though they don't always seem like real journalists.
These characters and their struggle to emerge intact from their '60s idealism, are the focus of the film, for the plot which frames that struggle is pure cliche. The big, bad conglomerate is just too predictably bull-headed, so intent on lancing any threats to its authority that journalistic quality ceases to matter. On the other hand, the idyllic days of hard-nosed investigative reporting, exposes and journalism prizes emerge in vague, rosy-colored hues through the sheen of memory. Sitting in bed after a bout of adultery with Harry, Laura rummages through a sheaf of old photographs and reminisces fondly: "Remember when we used to do everything ourselves? We were dangerous then."
Director Joan Micklin Silver treats Barron's memories with comparable fondness. Between the Lines, like its characters, presents itself as eminently likeable. Some of its individual sequences are funny in a delicate, almost priceless way. There is the scene, for example, in which Stanley, all mustache and glasses, defends himself against Lynn's charges that he had sexual intentions towards her during their last date. She: "You were literally on my body." He: "That's your perception of the situation."
Other sequences, funny in themselves, seem to come out of nowhere. At one point, Max, exploiting his popularity as a rock critic, lectures a group of rapt girls, who are busily taking notes: "The answer to whither rock is hither. Some people say thither but they're wrong. Their theories are passe." In the film's most outlandish sequence, he engages in a conceptual art battle with a street person, who bangs his fists against a Coke machine, kicks it to the ground and triumphantly labels it "Dead Coke Machine."
Between the Lines moves between the lives of its characters, shuttling from one comic vignette to the next--but this movement, like those lives, never seems to lead anywhere. Style is substance, but both are so fragmentary that the final effect, when the credits roll on the screen, is bafflement and frustration. Silver's flair is for the short, neatly-shaped segment. From these segments, the bits and pieces of humor and pathos that comprise the film, she is unable to forge any overarching dramatic unity.
Between the Lines seems to end in mid-arc. The bad guys have just taken over the Mainlinethe good guys, having spent most of the film in limbo, now find the resolve to leave, to develop the talents they have allowed to moulder. All the obstacles to career change vanish. So, even more miraculously, do the impediments to romance. A reluctant Laura accompanies the husband she has previously vowed to leave to his new job in New York. Following her lead, Abbie and Harry, suddenly reconciled, march out of a bar with their arms around each other, leaving poor Max to bewail his fate.
The frustration the film's ending provokes may relate to Silver's inability to evoke successfully either the togetherness of the old days or the looming threat of the new. Neither is as real as the comfortable stasis the characters inhabit during most of the film. The dissolution at the close is supposed to lead to new beginnings for the characters, as couples or as individuals. But, sadly, the abrupt shift in mood it entails leaves us with a trace of Abbie and Harry's old anomie.
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