This post is dedicated to Carolyn, Ryan, Seth, and the rest of the CityBallerz.
For nearly seven years, I wrote weekly film reviews for San Diego CityBeat, a well-respected alternative magazine that fervently covered politics, art, underserved communities and social justice movements, among other topics. It was the epitome of an independent local rag, tirelessly examining the issues that directly impacted our town with unmatched focus and intelligence while also featuring a hefty supply of weed and porn advertisements.
Writing for an alt-weekly means constantly being on deadline. Trying to keep pace with the seemingly endless publishing schedule is not a glamorous or easy experience, but it can be a rewarding one. Those of us who worked for CityBeat all vehemently believed it was a labor of love giving artists, critics and columnists a local platform.
As a freelancer, I wasn’t involved in the daily machinations of producing the paper; I filed copy from the digital afar. Our steadfast editors, designers, staff writers, photographers and interns (many of whom I still call friends) were the ones that kept CityBeat vital issue after issue, giving our once traditionally right-leaning city a thoughtful collection of diverse, progressive voices to consider.
But as has been the case with so many alternative weeklies in recent times, CityBeat was suddenly bought out in the summer of 2019 by a Conservative media conglomerate named Times Media Group based in Arizona. New ownership made hollow promises about retaining staff, ensuring leadership stability, and supporting editorial continuity. They ensured us that the paper’s identity would not be compromised. All of that was of course bullshit. Every longtime staffer knew the inevitable outcome of such a jarring transition in ideology. CityBeat lost nearly the entire editorial team within a few weeks, either through layoffs or voluntary departures.
As if right on cue, the new owners immediately neutered CityBeat’s content, publishing interviews with rock star sex offenders and reviewing Disney movies. This mainstream slant all but hollowed out the paper’s underground spirit. It was heartbreaking, especially for those who had spent so many years building CityBeat’s readership and archive (which tragically no longer exists online). A few months after the initial staffing exodus, I too resigned from my post as film critic. CityBeat as we knew it was long gone, and the arduous schedule was no longer worth my hustle. Mercilessly, this unrecognizable version of CityBeat was shuttered for good only a few months later as the global pandemic hit American soil.
These experiences came flooding back while watching Joan Micklin Silver’s superb Between the Lines (1977), which focuses on the eclectic staff of a Boston alt-weekly renowned for its investigative journalism, music reviews, muckraking and scathing wit. Throughout the film, they too face a similar buyout threat from corporate overlords, but remain committed to covering their beats even while admitting that things have been on a downward spiral for years.
The film’s opening scenes inside the Bayside Mainline office, a cramped but inviting space for weirdos, potheads, and journalism junkies, perfectly captures the slightly chaotic, always competitive vibe of a lefty rag. Silver introduces characters at a furious rate as they pitch stories during a morning editorial meeting, effortlessly showcasing each person’s temperament and placement in the pecking order. Hilariously, the staff film critic (his only scene!) is collectively admonished for asking to have the paper pay his way to cover the Cannes Film Festival. Brutal.
I immediately felt a deep kinship with this ragtag group of protective editors, quirky beat writers and stoic office folk whose personal travails always seem to intersect with their professional duties at the paper (it would make for a wonderful double feature with Empire Records (1995). Silver never seems in a rush to embrace specific overarching plot trajectories, instead choosing to hang out with these characters and let the context of each narrative thread be expressed organically. Much of the story revolves around the complicated relationship between investigative reporter Harry (John Heard) and photographer Abbie (Lindsay Crouse), who are never on the same page despite their mutual attraction for each other. But this is really an ensemble piece, featuring small but pivotal roles by actors like Bruno Kirby, Stephen Collins, Joe Morton, and Raymond J. Barry, who plays a memorably violent performance artist.
Harry, like pretty much every other man in Between the Lines, feels threatened by talented women like Abbie. We see varying degrees of this form of insecurity throughout the film. While he’s ultimately able to overcome those petty hangups by the end, it’s basically the best case scenario for a guy in Silver’s mind. Many of the other male characters aren’t nearly as redeemable, and are in fact deeply chauvinistic, creepy, predatory, and dishonest (the paper’s advertising manager is all three).
Then there’s the unclassifiable, free-spirited perfection of Jeff Goldblum’s music writer Max Arloft, who is both joker and messiah, the conman critic who also might be a genius. Silver gives all of these personalities room to converge at different points, most notably at a dive bar party where they dance, get drunk, and listen to live music as one shape-shifting entity. Silver uses a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party” to background their overlapping arguments, dance numbers, and betrayals, achieving a special kind of alchemy.
Eventually, the paper is indeed sold to a new publisher (Lane Smith). But what makes Between the Lines so special is how it provides these characters the time to appreciate their shared history; the stories, experiences and regrets that have helped shape their lives for so long before the paper becomes forever changed. They muse about supporting the counter culture, covering political rallies against Nixon and The Vietnam War, and championing artists who deserved the spotlight. Whatever the future holds, their words have mattered, and their community will miss them dearly.
Between the Lines is great movie about why independent journalists torture themselves week after week to file stories and meet deadlines. Graciously and effortlessly, Micklin (who passed away at the age of 85 on December 31, 2020) shows in joyous detail why it was never really that torturous a life after all.
Between the Lines is available to stream on The Criterion Channel.