‘Between the Lines’: when the underground went mainstream


The news of the closing down of the Boston Phoenix this week, after 47 years of publication, made me think of the wonderful but largely forgotten 1977 independent film “Between the Lines.”

The movie was written by a former Phoenix staffer, Fred Barron, in the wake of the first big shake-up at the paper — in the mid-1970s — when a larger corporation swallowed up what was then still an indie publictaion.

The same phenomenon was taking place in other cities as the funky little papers of the 1960s were becoming major advertising media for urban baby boomers and the targets of larger publishing entities. The Village Voice was bought around the same time by the first of a series of owners that would include Rupert Murdoch.

“Between the Lines” is a terrific little movie that became a virtual lost film, shortly after it was released, because director Joan Micklin Silver and her producer husband Raphael decided to self-distribute it as they did their previous collaboration, the 1975 arthouse hit “Hester Street,” which earned $5 million on an investment of less that $500,000.

“Hester Street” had ethnic and historical angles that clicked with sophisticated audiences in a way that “Between the Lines” didn’t — the earlier Silver film also scored an Oscar nomination for its leading lady, Carol Kane, which boosted its box-office take.

“Between the Lines” was, sadly, just a few years ahead of its time, in terms of focusing on the end of the counterculture and presenting baby boomers in their late 20s and early 30s who were wondering what happened to all of the idealism of their 1960s college days. Three years later, John Sayles scored a sizeable arthouse hit with similar material in “Return of the Secaucus Seven” and then in 1983 Lawrence Kasdan hit the jackpot with “The Big Chill,” a slick major studio take on baby boomer nostalgia.

After drifting in limbo for a few decades, “Between the Lines” finally showed up on home video thanks to the MGM DVD-on-demand division, and it is well worth a rental.

Silver has always had a great eye for new talent. The 1977 picture showcases Jeff Goldblum, John Heard, Jill Eikenberry, Lindsay Crouse, Stephen Collins, Lewis Stadlen and several other performers at the start of their distinguished film and TV careers and they are all quite wonderful.

The episodic view of young writers wondering what will come next for them has gained poignance over the years as such idealistic notions of media careers have become so hard to sustain. It’s a great 1970s time capsule.

Joe Meyers

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