I’ve tried to avoid posting too much about Beauty Day here at The Documentary Blog but I thought it might be worth mentioning that the film is hitting limited theatres in Canada TOMORROW (Friday, June 10th) and I’m thrilled. Here are the current dates, with more to come:
Cumberland (Cineplex), Toronto: Opening June 10
Mayfair Theatre, Ottawa: Opening June 10
Empire Pen Centre, (Pen Centre Mall), St. Catharines: June 10 – 16
Regina Public Library Film Theatre: June 30 – July 3
Princess Cinema, Waterloo: July 1 – 7, 2011
Gimli Film Festival (Beach Screening), Gimli, MB: July 23 (Midnight Screening)
Winnipeg Cinematheque: Aug 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17
In light of the theatrical release, I wanted to share this great piece that a friend of mine wrote about the film. Mike Meneghetti is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film at Brock University. I’ve gotten to know him over the last year after he invite me to show a rough cut of the movie to his documentary class. Since then we’ve had lots of great discussions about a number of documentary films and he was kind enough to share his thoughts on Beauty Day in the following review. I thought it would be great to share it with you guys. (To maintain a sense of balance, you can also read Linda Barnard’s 2.5 star review in the Toronto Star here) Enjoy!
Anyone who attended Beauty Day’s Canadian premiere at the Hot Docs International Documentary Festival in April can attest to the film’s remarkably enthusiastic reception by its first audience. Preceded by an impromptu, boisterous performance by Cap’n Video/Ralph Zavadil (the film’s subject) in front of the Isabel Bader Theater, Beauty Day’s screening was punctuated by the sort of applause, laughter, and chatter that one typically encounters only at projections of the most cherished cult films. A great deal of this enthusiasm was undoubtedly generated by Zavadil himself: an outsized personality, Zavadil is never less than intriguing and engaging throughout the film, and his fearless commitment to his own video-making and self-expression is frequently inspiring. In its insistent focus upon a single figure, Beauty Day is in this respect an excellent example of what the film’s director, Jay Cheel, has sometimes called documentary “character pieces.” It vividly renders its subject’s story by closely examining the larger-than-life Zavidil’s modest rise and fall as a cable TV performer in the early 1990s, alternating between archival footage of various kinds and present-day recollections. Cheel’s film alludes to a considerable amount of other historical material over the course of its narrative, but it invariably returns to this immediate preoccupation with its central “character.”
As the creator of The Cap’n Video Show, a local cable access program that ran from 1990 to 1995, Zavadil attracted a small and loyal following in the Niagara Region. Each weekly episode was devoted to the performance of purposely sophomoric and sometimes dangerous stunts (“rooftop tobogganing,” “instant breakfast,” “clothesline skiing,” “instant razor in a bottle,” etc.), but Zavadil quite clearly saw his undertaking as a calculated provocation of the stolid St. Catharines/Niagara television world and its audience. Early reviews of Beauty Day have understandably seized upon Zavadil’s status as an antecedent to contemporary gross-out stunt comedies like Jackass and The Tom Green Show; yet The Cap’n Video Show’s irreverence appears to be a form of anti-television when compared to these more popular programs: hilariously derisive and never passing up an opportunity to challenge convention and decorum, The Cap’n Video Show retains a strong sense of outsider-hood even today. Now that Beauty Day is being released to a wider viewing public this weekend, it can continue its resuscitation of this important precursor to key contemporary phenomena. For some spectators, Cheel’s film will surely be most valuable as an entertaining introduction to Zavadil/Cap’n Video and this re-situating of his work in a broader historical context.
But Beauty Day is much more than a simple compilation of Cap’n Video stunts, and we should perhaps resist collapsing the substantial difference between The Cap’n Video Show and Cheel’s film. So instead of returning to Beauty Day’s subject matter or reexamining Cap’n Video’s status as an forerunner to Jackass, “Reality TV” and You Tube, I want to look very briefly at Cheel’s superb rendering of this character study. Beauty Day’s achievements as a documentary ultimately hinge upon its interest in this figure and the manner in which it tells its story: if Zavadil/Cap’n Video is intriguing to us as viewers, it’s in large part because of Cheel’s skillful shaping of this material into a very compelling story.
Broadly organized as a narrative film, Beauty Day is composed of two large-scale movements that bookend a slightly shorter middle section: the drama here ostensibly unfolds in three acts. In the film’s first section, we’re told about the creation and rise of The Cap’n Video Show. Unhappily employed as a millwright at General Motors, Zavadil’s entry into video production and cable television is explicitly understood as an escape from despair and small town drudgery. The Cap’n Video Show is a both a vehicle for self-expression (or Zavadil’s “idiocity,” as he puts it) and a challenge to his surrounding world’s excessive staidness. Throughout this section of the film we see footage from The Cap’n Video Show, learn of Zavadil’s growing relationship with Nancy Dewar, and witness his longstanding friendship with Robert Buick. It’s a period of creativity, risk-taking and possibilities for Zavadil. By contrast, Beauty Day’s middle section is marked by a series of crises, both professional and personal. A serious motorcycle crash for Dewar is quickly followed by Zavadil’s ill-conceived and nearly fatal “pool plunge” stunt, a disastrous Easter episode of The Cap’n Video Show that eventually leads to its cancellation, and a pot bust that appears to be career suicide. The film’s final movement is devoted to Zavadil’s energetic attempt to resuscitate The Cap’n Video Show on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary by producing a commemorative hour-long episode for cable TV. He is an older and slightly more serene figure at this point, of course, but Zavadil’s creative zeal is still plainly evident in his staging of new Cap’n Video stunts for the proposed anniversary show.
Summarizing Beauty Day’s narrative this way might risk making it appear too conveniently diagrammatic; but the film’s deliberate structure is precisely what permits an uncommonly compassionate character study to slowly emerge. Readers of The Documentary Blog already know that Cheel has been writing about documentaries for several years, and the “character piece” is a constant point of reference and concern in his film criticism. In works as disparate as Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994) and The English Surgeon (Geoffrey Smith, 2007), Cheel returns time and time again to the special problems of creating a character-driven documentary film. In his discussion of Crumb, for instance, he writes of the film’s “delicate balance between traditional retrospective talking head biopic and a more immediate and intimate character piece.” Similarly, he lauds The English Surgeon’s “utterly watchable non-fiction characters.” Even more complex examples of “character pieces” like Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) appear in Cheel’s writing, and one can’t help but think that Hossain Sabzian’s metamorphosis into a fictional being of his own imagining in Kiarostami’s film has at least some tangential relation to Beauty Day’s unmistakable fascination with Zavadil. Indeed, this interest in self-invention may also shed some valuable light on Beauty Day’s close kinship with American Movie (Chris Smith, 1999): self-invention in indifferent and apparently hopeless environments (Mark Borchardt’s “northwest,” Zavadil’s St. Catharines) is at the heart of each of these works about creative people working single-mindedly in the distant margins of their respective fields.
Cheel is, in this regard, part of a very long tradition of cinephile filmmakers who have also worked as film critics, refusing to distinguish between these two practices. It hardly seems accidental that Beauty Day strikes us as such a fully formed feature-length film debut: Cheel’s film criticism has functioned as a sort of laboratory for him to test, think about and deepen many of his ideas about character-driven documentaries. The refinement of these ideas is everywhere evident in Beauty Day. The film opens with Cap’n Video’s most infamous stunt-gone-wrong: the “pool plunge.” Looking for a novel way to remove his pool cover, Cap’n Video climbs to the top of a poorly secured ladder, leaps and lands headfirst on the concrete, breaking his neck in the process. As he will throughout the first two-thirds of the film, Cheel strategically uses Zavadil’s archival footage here – a single long take from a fixed position (Zavadil had no camera operator), given to us in the nearly square aspect ratio of an old television set. But beyond quickly introducing us to Zavadil/Cap’n Video through his most notorious stunt and its immediate aftermath, the film’s pre-credit sequence sets the terms for Cheel’s engagement with this frequently unruly figure. Seeing the disastrous “pool plunge” without immediate contextualization produces an enigma: the rationale for such an ill-conceived and dangerous stunt is completely inscrutable to us; yet we are undeniably curious about this person as a consequence. The film’s sudden shift to a widescreen aspect ratio for its subsequent images of a present-day Ralph Zavadil recounting this tale cleverly alerts us to the film’s approach: it will intervene and balance the documentary’s potential for invasive curiosity with a surprising degree of dexterity and generosity when dealing with its subject. Although he never appears in Beauty Day, one frequently senses that Cheel is subtly shaping his character study in this manner throughout the film.
Beauty Day is extremely well made, but Cheel’s work here strikes us as something more than mere technical proficiency. This is nowhere more apparent than in the film’s lyrical and poetic widescreen compositions. As Zavadil and Buick concoct and stage various stunts for the twentieth anniversary episode of The Cap’n Video Show, one senses Beauty Day’s increasingly confident creation of arresting images. The sight of Zavadil paragliding through the air produces a wondrous image, in this respect, and so too does the shot of Cap’n Video riding his motorized skateboard in slow motion, accompanied by Dan Deacon’s “The Crystal Cat” on the film’s soundtrack. Beauty Day’s closing image of Cap’n Video riding his scooter alone along the beach is equally unforgettable. There is a pervasive air of empathy and generosity in all of these images, and their lyricism speaks directly to Cheel’s approach to this character and his story. The significant capacity for image-making was already on display in Cheel’s early short films, Obsessed and Scientific (2005), The Goblin Man of Norway (2008), and Colore Non Vedenti (2009); but it has reached a higher level of refinement in Beauty Day precisely because of its relation to the broader goals of a character study as Cheel understands them. In the end, Zavadil’s attempt to create a twentieth anniversary episode for Cap’n Video is little more than a pretext for the film’s excellent final movement. In Jay Cheel’s Beauty Day, The Cap’n Video Show has in fact found a greater commemoration than it ever could have imagined for itself.