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

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.