Before Youtube and before Johnny Knoxville and his crew there was Ralph Zavadil, aka Cap’n Video. A local access cable show in St. Catharines, Ontario, Cap’n Video existed in obscurity until Zavadil’s alter ego attempted one too many dangerous stunts. And it is that stunt, a botched plunge into a covered pool off a shaky ladder, which opens the documentary Beauty Day.
Not being a fan of watching people put themselves through bizarre, dangerous and often times disgusting stunts, I was hesitant to watch a documentary about one of the early pioneers of the genre that now dominates the web and fills far too many TV channels. Much to my surprise, Beauty Day is far more than a story about Cap’n Video. It is a well told story of a character you wouldn’t believe existed in real life, proving the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction.
Zavadil nearly loses his life after the pool plunge stunt. Had it not been for a neighbor hearing the crash, Cap’n Video would have been in the next day’s obits. While I would assume these antics are done purely for the attention they might gain, the film portrays a more nuanced motivation. Cap’n Video was Zavadil’s attempt to live life to its fullest, albeit in his own odd way. The show and its title character were his way of acting out creatively, escaping a dead end job at the local factory.
Interesting characters make or break any film, documentaries are no exception. But what puts Beauty Day over the top are director Jay Cheel’s choices of music, editing, and cinematography. Very little of the documentary is typical of the genre. Opening with the stunt that ended Zavadil’s show and nearly ended his life is bold. Even the opening title sequence is noticeably different, as it is bright blue with bold white typography. And the use of video grids early on is a great way to further entrench the viewer with the vibe of the Cap’n Video show of old while establishing the unique aesthetics of the documentary itself. Even talking head interviews are interesting, as the first one to show on screen is Ralph with his alien looking light helmet on his head talking about the accident while smoking and drinking. The use of 2:35 aspect ratio for everything but clips from the television show adds to the cinematic feel.
The challenge I’ve noticed character studies like Beauty Day have is they’re never quite sure how deep to go into the story of the character. Sometimes the director tries to dive in deeper and is rejected (see Bill Cunningham, New York), other times the director gets the access to go deeper but fails at painting a complete picture (e.g. Buck) of the subject’s life. Beauty Day succeeds at giving a much fuller picture of Zavadil’s life story while still maintaining a connection to the show that gave him minor celebrity status.
There is a richness to the narrative. We learn about a man who survived cancer as a child and then went on to produce a one-man stunt show which almost led to his death. We see the parallels of a former girlfriend’s experience on the motorcycle racing circuit with that of Zavadil’s life, the revelation of a daughter he didn’t realize he had until later on in life, and witness an attempt to create a 20th anniversary Cap’n Video.
Beauty Day is refreshingly honest. There is a nervous energy about Ralph Zavadil that is hard to not get wrapped up in. At the same time, Ralph is human and the film never tries to hide that. It would be easy to portray him as a misunderstood genius of self-destructive stunts or a troubled soul we should feel sorry for, but instead we get a look at the good, the bad and the stuff that falls somewhere in-between. And all of this is done with a sense of humor and unique style that adds up to a fine film.