Hot Docs 2011: ‘Beauty Day’ more than just a story about the original Jackass

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Beauty Day

Directed by Jay Cheel

2011, Canada

Most of the best documentary films are about outsiders, about people and events that exist within our society but reside in a fringe culture that most of us are unaware of or uneducated about. Whether examined for shock value, comedy, or in hopes of garnering some larger insight, outsiders have always been a staple, perhaps even a requirement, of engaging documentary film. From Errol Morris’ Mr. Death to Seth Gordon’s King of Kong, the best narrative documentaries revolve around subjects we can recognize as familiar enough to relate to in some way, but foreign enough to be novel and interesting. In Beauty Day, director Jay Cheel is fortunate enough to have found a perfect example of exactly that kind of compelling outsider and talented enough to craft more than just a voyeuristic look at his subject.

Beauty Day follows Ralph Zavadil, an icon of early 90’s public access TV in Southern Ontario. Ralph’s show, Captain Video, can be described most succinctly as an early pre-cursor to Jackass. Alone with his video camera Ralph jumped off his roof, snorted eggs, climbed into his washing machine and generally abused himself and his property for the amusement of his viewers. Captain Video was a shockingly popular show (for public access TV) and Ralph’s bigger and crazier stunts were regular staples of the VCR mix-tapes passed around in schoolyards and college dorms in the early 90’s. In fact, the film opens with what would prove to be by far the most famous Captain Video clip: an attempted stunt that went horribly wrong and resulted in Ralph being seriously injured. It would also get him kicked off the air and lead to nearly 15 years of aimless depression as he sought something to fill the creative void in his life.

What makes Beauty Day so effective is its subtle yet pervasive commentary on artistic expression. That might sound like an overly erudite interpretation of a film that follows a man who snorts raw eggs, but it’s precisely the extremity of his subject that allows Cheel to explore this theme so successfully. The film moves beyond any sophomoric discussion of “what is art” and examines instead the effect of creative expression on those creating it. Ralph’s need to express himself far outstrips his artistic or technical talents but the earnest lack of pretension with which he approaches his work, combined with the effect it’s absence has on his life, clearly demonstrates the joy and purpose he finds his creative outlet. In many ways Ralph is very child-like; he is far more concerned with the enjoyment  of the process then producing any kind of product.

Filmically, Beauty Day is very well made and even branches off from traditional documentary narrative techniques occasionally. Cheel uses an extremely narrative style, presenting a film that moves very much like a scripted drama, replete with a three-act structure and even a montage sequence. Much like Andrew Jarecki did in Capturing the Friedmans, Cheel edited a staggering amount of existing footage with subject interviews that act as narration. Nearly every story and anecdote is illustrated by footage of the event in question, providing the viewer with what feels like an extremely authentic experience.

Beauty Day is an excellent example of what a first-person documentary should be; an examination of a subject that reveals far more than one would expect at first glance. Although the film will undoubtedly be tagged as a documentary about “the original Jackass”, which makes sense in terms of marketing and is not entirely untrue. Beauty Day is really a film about expression, about the need to find a voice in the world and about the stark realities of loneliness and friendship. As seen through the eyes of the original Jackass.

– Michael Waldman

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8th.

Visit the official website for the festival.

Visit the official site for the film.

5 Comments
  1. Paula Tavares says

    Sorry I spelled Ralph’s name incorrectly. I meant to spell Ralph Zavadil. LOL

  2. Paula Tavares says

    I watched Beauty Day by Jay Cheel about Ralph Vavadil. Very interesting and I had a positive reaction from the documentary. Thank you for being you Ralph Vavadil. I am glad you survived cancer and all the dangerous business that you got into. :)

  3. C.P.McC says

    Just saw parts of Beauty Day , and you rock ,after almost dying from a heart attack, you are an inspiration to how life should be lived.
    Thanks Brother

  4. Mike Waldman says

    Hey Ralph! thanks for the comments!

    I am sorry for the typo (Cap’n vs Captain) and for any mis- perception in interpreting your story. I guess I was trying to relate for our readers the effect that having your creative outlet taken from you had on your life. I did not mean to imply that your life was depressing, or that you are a depressing person in any way.

    I think your story is very interesting and that Jay’s film was great. I’m sorry you feel I was making assumptions about your emotional state. That certainly wasn’t my intention.

    Thanks for reading and responding!

    Mike

  5. Ralph Zavadil says

    Hello Michael and thanx for writing about this film “Beauty Day” by Jay Cheel (which I have yet to see…waiting for the Canadian premier on April 29) but I am not “Captain” Video, this title was taken back in the early ’50’s by Richard Coogan. I am Cap’n Video, as in Crunch.

    I have NEVER been depressed, for after beating cancer as a 12 yr. old I realized that every day is a gift. If you have interpreted my life as being depressing then you are right, for that is your option.

    I hope that you laughed at my hijinx and enjoyed the story that Jay told about me but please don’t be so fast in your assumations about others’ emotional well-being and please research the spelling of your target’s name.

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