Well, that didn’t take very long, did it? It’s only the second week of 2022, and we already have the first great movie and the first great film history book of the new year. Things are looking up.
Let’s start on the screen with Belle, the latest from anime writer/director Mamoru Hosoda. Set in modern-day Japan, Belle follows Suzu, a 17-year-old wanna-be singer suffering from a crippling shyness stemming from a childhood tragedy. For this reason, Suzu can’t connect with the other students and can’t tell her oldest friend, Shinobu, how she really feels about him—even though he probably feels the same about her. So Suzu’s friend convinces her to join the “U,” a massive virtual reality populated by five billion avatars. “You can’t start over in reality, but you can start over in U.” Suzu chooses the name Belle, takes the image of a freckle-faced pop princess outfitted in a flowing pink dress, and becomes the girl everyone in U talks about. That’s when the Beast shows up—a large, horned dragon covered in bruises—and catches Belle’s empathetic eyes. Sound familiar?
Though Hosoda effortlessly evokes elements of the 18th-century French fairy tale and subsequent cinematic adaptations—even cribbing some of the imagery from the 1991 animated Beauty and the Beast—Belle quickly leaves the Disney version behind to blaze its own trail. It’s a sweet story with plenty of heart, but it’s in the visual depiction of U’s virtual world where Belle really sings. Hosoda layers a cacophony of textures: image, sound, and on-screen text, to depict a space where emotions change fast, allegiances change faster, and corporate sponsorship is as fleeting as it is validating. It’s a knockout, and distributor GKIDS releases Belle in theaters this weekend in both dubbed and subtitled versions.
Now let’s head to the bookshelf for the new paperback printing of What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, film historian Joseph McBride’s portrait of the infamous filmmaker’s turbulent career.
What Ever Happened grew out of McBride’s frustration with the public perception of Welles. Almost everyone knew of and had seen Citizen Kane, the writer/director/actor’s stunning debut, but far less knew of his subsequent movies—a few of which might even be superior to Kane.
McBride knows his Welles: he’s been writing about him since 1970. He watched Kane 60 times before approaching Welles for an interview. Not long after he did, Welles cast McBride in The Other Side of the Wind—Welles’ legendarily unfinished final film.
When the hardback of What Ever Happened was published in 2006, Other Side of the Wind remained unfinished, Too Much Johnson (a pre-Kane short Welles made for a stage show) was missing, and The Hearts of Age (another pre-Kane short) was practically unknown. It isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that McBride’s book had a hand in keeping these projects in the minds of cineastes, and now all three have been discovered, finished, restored, and available for home viewing.
McBride updates What Ever Happened where appropriate but retains the original text to preserve how the world came to overlook Welles and how contemporary scholarship is correcting that omission. Welles’ approach to entertainment and politics probably tracks better with today’s crowd than they ever did in his lifetime, and McBride does right by documenting it all with first-hand knowledge, exhaustive research, and energetic prose.
What Ever Happened to Orson Welles? is one of the best books you’ll find on a filmmaker’s career, not to mention understanding 20th century Hollywood from 35,000 feet. And at a manageable 330 pages, you could knock it out in four or five sittings. But with a story this good, you’ll want to savor every page. Now available in paperback from University Press of Kentucky.