Tuesday, March 20, 2012

review: Beauty Day

Beauty Day (2011, Jay Cheel)

Before there was Jackass...Before there was YouTube... There was Ralph Zavadil’

So goes the tag line for a recently produced documentary, the subject of which, Ralph Zavadil, was as much controversial in the eyes of some as he was amazing in the eyes of others. Made for a very modest budget, Between the Seats’s interest in the film rested in the fact that its director, Jay Cheel, is not only an up and coming Canadian filmmaker (already hard at work on his second feature, no less), but happens to be one of the many fantastic co-hosts of one of the oldest, most well established film discussion podcasts on the internet, Film Junk. Familiarity with a director but not with the subject matter can be a tricky proposition, for what if the subject is less than thrilling? Thankfully, in the case of Beauty Day, the director could have chosen are more curious figure in Canadian television history, admired by some, while completely misunderstood by others.

For the uninitiated (as were we heading into the movie), Ralph Zavadil also goes by the name of Cap’n Video. Just who is Cap’n Video? In a nutshell, he was a moderate hit on Ontario cable access television in the early to mid 1990s, airing in the evening in a show that some would, as suggested by the tag line, liken to the now ever popular Jackass crew or the slew of amateurs who share, on You Tube and Vimeo, their sometimes ridiculous, hysterical, exhilarating, or downright dangerous stunts. Wearing his trademark shades (and occasionally a hard hat equipped with multi-coloured lights hanging from extensions), Cap’n Video would either slide off his snowy rooftop in the winter, prepare a Christmas roast by flaming up the evergreen in his backyard, jump off a pole and into his tool shed, snort egg yoke…basically any act no regular human being would ever consider performing. Beauty Day, the title having been by inspired a famous phrase the Cap’n would utter sometimes before engaging in his audacious acts invites the viewer to learn about who the man behind the shades was, why he spent so much energy on producing such sensational entertainment and what happened to him since being taken off the air in 1995. The film is brought together via a collage of old video footage and recently recorded interviews with Zavadil himself, his best friend, mother, former girlfriend, and daughter

First and foremost, something should be clearly mentioned before going any deeper into this review: anyone reading this article who has an aversion to people deliberately committing stupidity, who would never shed one small parcel of sympathy in order to understand why someone would be driven to earning some money and fame via such unorthodox means, then Beauty Day is unquestionably not the movie for them. 


With that out of the way, Beauty Day is a cleverly conceived and executed documentary, one which shows a very human side to an individual many thought to be completely crazy. If all one knew about Ralph Zavadil was his cable television persona, which was decidedly offbeat in its embrace of hyperactivity and love of danger, then director Cheel has some pleasant surprises in store. Granted, if such television brings out laughter, then that group of cinema lovers will almost assuredly find Beauty Day to be a hilarious exploration of one man’s determination to let his crazy side loose for a while. There are plenty of clips from old episodes which date back close to 20 years by now, many of which remind (or reveal, depending on how familiar one is with the man at the center of attention), how bonkers Zavadil was, which in of itself can be very funny at times. On a more serious note, there is a critical moment early in the film when Zavadil, in a beautifully candid interview, admits to wanting to let go, to release the craziness that he believes each individual has inside of them. Pondering on those words, one would be hard pressed to disagree outright with the Cap’n. True enough, most do not and never will act out on those bizarre, dangerous, outlandish ideas, but there is little point in denying that they never come to us. That is why we tell dirty jokes, why we make movies about ridiculous things, why we make up stories, and why some of us, like Ralph Zavadil, who enact them to the fullest extent, with frequently uproarious results. He was a man apart, of that there is no question, but through him people, in some ways, could live out their craziest fantasies which involved stunts of bravura and insanity all mixed into one.

A few simple clips of the Cap’n former exploits will have almost anyone believe that Zavadil was indeed a lunatic, not only for the ludicrous acts performed but also for his aforementioned on screen persona. Director Cheel knows better than to simply have the audience witness that side of the man, and therefore offers a series of honest, down to earth moments in which Zavadil and those closest to him discuss his career in the media. By the film’s conclusion, however many reservations one might have about what he did, who he is makes for a compelling story because, when boiled down to its essentials, Zavadil was and remains a pretty swell fellow. Considerable issues plagued him, among them a significant drinking problem and eventual depression from working at a General Motors plant (a job he loathed), but behind those unfortunate qualities is a man with a surprisingly even-headed outlook on life. His willingness to reinvent himself also impresses, as he now works in his best friend’s glass sculpting company as well as spending some time fixing and making bicycles at Canadian Tire. Observations and revelations about his love and familial lives also help flesh out this most curious of characters, ensuring that the audience leaves with a three-dimensional idea of who he is.

As an artistic piece cinema, Beauty Day is a modest effort overall by most standards, yet a few noteworthy characteristics earn it some extra points. For starters, while the majority of the picture refuses to indulge in any particular stylistic flourishes (nor does it need to either, mind you), much of talking head content and other recently documented footage is captured with a steady camera. In other words, director Cheel does not, for the most part, adopt the handheld style which permeates today's cinematic landscape. Theoretically, this is not an element that should have the film stand out, but in a day and age where it seems absolutely everything must feel as 'real' as possible, which for some reason seems to imply usage of the handheld visual technique, Beauty Day serves as a pleasant reminder that a documentary, or any movie for that matter, can look just as real and possibly even more accomplished by relying on some good old fashioned, judiciously chosen camera set ups. Another, more flamboyant quality arrives during the opening credits, at which time Cheel edits together a collage of old Cap'n video skits side by side within the picture frame. It is a clever piece of editing, one that hints at the gargantuan amount of Cap'n Video episodes there are in existence in addition to serving as a comical introduction to the character himself.

Beauty Day strives for more than merely indulging in fanboy dreams. Reliving old Cap'n Video episodes for the sake of it still would have made a fun movie, but not as interesting and touching as the one Jay Cheel has concocted. It offers a true behind the scenes look into the world and mind of someone who dared to do what only a precious few typical citizens would: take a trip on the wild side.

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