Good documentaries have a very simple and direct appeal. We engage because we are watching something true, and often, something we had no idea about. I have always been drawn more towards documentaries about people or places than issues, because I find people endlessly interesting, and documentaries capture us in all our freaky glory.
In the case of “Beauty Day,” a Canadian documentary that is arriving on video in that country this week, I was hooked immediately by the the story of Ralph Zavadil, who made a name for himself as a local cable access celebrity in Ontario decades ago. As “Cap’n Video,” Zavadil was willing to do anything for a laugh, putting himself in harm’s way over and over again before one stunt ended the laughter.
Or… did it? Because the stunt that broke his neck was also the first stunt of his I ever saw, without knowing who it was or what the circumstances were. I didn’t realize it was from a show or that this was a guy who did this on a regular basis. I was introduced to Zavadil via the magic of YouTube and a friend who sent me a video in an e-mail with the header “OMG THIS IS THE STUPIDEST PERSON ALIVE EXCEPT HE MIGHT BE DEAD NOW!!”
If you’ve seen the video, you remember it. It’s hard not to. It’s the sort of image that burns itself into your grey matter permanently, and it may be Cap’n Video’s most famous moment. It has vanished from the internet in the time since I first saw it, and part of that is because Jay Cheel got in touch with Zavadil and proposed the notion of making a documentary that would finally cast him as more than just “that dude who fell off the ladder and broke his neck on the concrete beside his pool.”
Jay Cheel’s documentary catches up with Zavadil today, and more than anything, it is a bruising portrait of a guy realizing that the glory days are gone and that he should have made more of it. The film looks back at his highlights as Cap’n Video, looks as the way it impacted his life at the time, and then paints a picture of the years he’s spent since. The amazing part is that Zavadil ever walked again after that miss with the swimming pool.
One of the hardest things for anyone making a career in media is longevity, and with someone like Zavadil, what he did was not built to last. He was just a crazy kid playing with a camera, and he realized he could get people to watch. There was very little art to what he did, and when it was over, it left a hole in him as a person that nothing else could fill the same way.
“Beauty Day” is a very small-scale film, and that’s one of its merits. The film focuses on this one obscure pseudo-celebrity, and it treats him with the same respect and awards him the same attention as if George Clooney was the one being profiled or Jonas Salk or John Lennon. It would have been easy for Jay Cheel to make a film that just laughed at the goofball who broke his neck for a forgotten TV show. But to make a film that affords him some actual dignity while being totally true to who he was back then? That’s tricky, and that’s “Beauty Day.”
Not sure when this one hits video in the States, but for my Canuck friends, pick this one up if you haven’t already, and prepare to meet Cap’n Video.
ONE THING I LOVE TODAY appears here every day. Yep. Every day.