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Beauty Day

2011, Directed by Jay Cheel (FilmsWeLike).

It's long been one of the favourite subjects of Canadian documentary filmmakers--personalities that chase a dream at any cost, often pushing themselves to dangerous physical limits. Jay Cheel's always engaging Beauty Day joins such homegrown docs as Paul Jay's Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows, Robert Fortier's The Devil at Your Heels and Paul Lynch's Project Grizzly as a bittersweet portrait of a larger-than-life blue-collar character who lives life on his own terms but doesn't always succeed.

St. Catharines, Ontario native Ralph Zavadil may not be as well known as stuntman Ken Carter or pro wrestling icon Bret Hart, but he's no less fascinating. A former GM shift worker, Zavadil gave it all up to reinvent himself as Cap'n Video, the gonzo star of a no-budget cable access show in which he would destroy TVs, perform wild stunts and generally hurt himself for the amusement of his audience--all the while proclaiming that it was going to be a "beauty day!" While an obvious precursor to later shows like Jackass and The Tom Green Show, Zavadil's show was a thoroughly homemade DIY effort, shot on one consumer-grade camcorder with no crew--he would set up his camera, perform his planned stunt and then shuffle off to stop the tape. Unfortunately, Zavadil's unique lone wolf approach backfired during the show's most infamous stunt misfire, where he climbed a ladder to jump onto his covered swimming pool but missed, instead breaking his neck on the concrete below. Luckily some neighbours came to his rescue, but there was no one to even stop the camera from rolling until the police arrived.

Catching up with Zavadil almost 15 years after the Cap'n Video show ended, Cheel's documentary intertwines interviews with Zavadil with the memories and thoughts of his parents, ex-girlfriend and other associates. It's a sometimes endearing picture of the entertainer and his anarchic approach that made him a local celebrity to a legion of young viewers in the area. Touching on some of the more troubled aspects of his life, the doc follows the development and eventual cancellation of the show, all interspersed with lots of crazy Cap'n Video footage--Zavadil setting his face on fire, snorting raw egg up his nose, tobogganing off his roof, smashing his head into fluorescent light bulbs and eating dog hair. For obvious reasons, the film focuses primarily on the pool jump and the antics that got him booted from the airwaves after the Humane Society complained about two gags he performed with his pets, including pouring chocolate syrup on his dog and licking it off.

There's lots of other aspects that could have been explored here--as the film progresses, we find out that Zavadil had a daughter he didn't meet until she was a teenager, he beat cancer as a young man, and the film also affords him the chance to reunite with a past girlfriend who he hasn't really seen since she had a career-ending motorcycle accident. But Cheel keeps the narrative focused strongly on the rise and fall of Zavadil's amateur stuntman career, which ends mostly in heartbreak.

The chance to transform Cap'n Video from a cable-access celeb to a national or even international icon always slipped out of Zavadil's grasp, due to a variety of factors including an arrest for growing marijuana that prevented him from travelling across the border. Though Zavadil, who now assists a local artist in his workshop and also has a bike assembly business, largely swears off his wild past, the last part of the film has him launching a bid for a 20th anniversary special that would see him performing new stunts, including motoring across his pool with a few duct-taped beer coolers and a weed whacker and breaking through a TV screen in a crude but funny supposed re-enactment of the good Cap'n's birth. Even though the station eventually decides not to air the special, it's obvious that Zavadil's again having the time of his life and that the character has really come full circle for him n these poignant scenes that seem to be giving him a second chance.

Cap'n Video may only be a hero to those that watched his show religiously in the Niagara region of Southern Ontario, but he's still a quintessentially Canadian figure. He share much in common with Hart, Carter and Project Grizzly subject Troy Hurtubise, with a vernacular that seems borrowed from both Bob and Doug McKenzie and FUBAR's Terry and Dean (Zavadil even says "give'r" a few times in his interviews). It would be easy to lump these documentaries together as a kind of byproduct of the Canadian "loser" films of the 1970s. After all, like Pete and Joey and their spiritual successors, Zavadil and similar doc subjects are lovable but archetypical hosers in many ways, trying to live out larger-than-life dreams but not always making it. To do that, though, would be to reduce these guys to simple maple leaf-waving caricatures. And that's what these uniformly excellent documentaries never do, instead pulling back the public mask of these tough, eccentric guys to reveal the very vulnerable souls underneath.

It's true that stardom never happened for Zavadil, but the film suggests he may be better off this way. There are lessons here about embracing your inner weirdo and living life to the fullest, but the film also focuses on the increasing corporatization of culture--the community station rejects the Cap'n Video special because of the dangerous stunts and the show's homemade look--the very qualities that made it so appealing to people in the past. As sadly revealed over the course of the film, there may not be a place for Cap'n Video on the airwaves anymore, but that doesn't mean he doesn't matter--an important point that this fine tribute to Zavadil's legacy makes clear.

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