Beauty Day is a documentary portrait of St. Catharines, Ont., native Ralph Zavadil, a pre- Jackass amateur stuntman and comedian, that falls somewhere between "funny ha-ha" and "funny uh-oh." The film, which was a hit at the Hot Docs festival and included in the Museum of Modern Art's Canadian Front series, has some parallels to Werner Herzog's and Errol Morris's studies in male obsession, but not enough to dwell on. At best, it can be seen as an example of how the technology of home video, which turned some people into pests at family events, turned others, like Zavadil, into artists of a kind.
Back in the early 1990s, Zavadil, a millwright working for General Motors, got himself a show on cable access television, where he explored his "kooky" side by dressing in colourful costumes, speaking in a growly Captain Hook pirate voice and calling himself Cap'n Video, as he filmed himself doing various icky or dangerous stunts. Even in pain, he maintained his obliviously upbeat demeanour. The film's title comes from his catchphrase, which may owe something to the "beauty, eh?" of those fictional SCTV hosers Bob and Doug McKenzie.
Zavadil's career highlight/low point was a stunt in which he attempted something that, in the post-You Tube world, would qualify as an "epic fail." One winter day he set up his camera in his backyard and tried to crash through a pool tarp from a telephone pole. He missed, hitting the poolside where he broke his neck before his body bounced into the water. By chance, a teenaged neighbour, who was home from school for lunch, heard the noise and called 911. The video clip was widely aired on television stations around the world where a stupid human trick will trump news value every time.
The footage of that awful moment is shown early in the opening minutes of Jay Cheel's film, which has Zavadil recounting his five-year cable career, accompanied by archival footage and interviews with family and colleagues. The show ended after complaints about his Easter special, in which the Cap'n tossed eggs in the direction of a suspended rabbit and licked chocolate off the backs of puppies. The second part follows his attempts to create a 20th-anniversary special to air on cable again, although both demands for better image quality and liability waivers have changed the business.
The film looks at his key relationships: Those include his mom, his daughter (who he discovered when she was 12), his friend and collaborator Paul Buick, and his former motorcycle-racing girlfriend, Nancy Dewar. They all confirm the impression that Zavadil is a warm-hearted handful. Though Cheel's editing and use of music is astute, even at 91 minutes the film feels long, as it attempts to provide more and more context without any commensurate insight.
In his direct-to-camera interview segments, often with a cigarette and beer bottle in hand, Zavadil doesn't help much. When not tobogganing off of roofs, snorting raw eggs up his nose or shaving with lighter fluid on television, he comes across as a likeable dude who doesn't always think things through. At one point, he speculates that it was his experience of childhood cancer that drove him to try to live life to the hilt. On the other hand, he credits a combination of ecstasy and Frank Zappa music for curing his broken neck. Just think of him as an enigma wrapped in a bungee cord wrapped in a pool tarp.
- Directed by Jay Cheel
- Starring Ralph Zavadil
- Classification: 14A