Building empathy through imagery, Ken August Myer’s documentary self-portrait Angel Applicant follows the filmmaker-subject as he attempts making sense of his own medical condition through the work of the late Swiss-German modern artist and Bauhaus faculty member Paul Klee. Framed in quasi-chapters, starting with Klee’s 1934 “Little blue-handed Man,” the Portland, Oregon-based art director at Wieden + Kennedy introduces his first symptoms. One day his hands suddenly freeze up before swelling like boiled hot dogs. Healthy until this point he’s taken to see a rheumatologist by his mother (who also recorded the diagnosis on a cassette tape), we find out Ken has the rare autoimmune disease scleroderma, which essentially sets his immune system into a hyper-defense mode practically squeezing his body, leading to the hardening of skin and the gastro-track, making bodily functions (e.g. breathing) extremely painful. 

When we first meet Ken he’s frail but optimistic, finding comfort in Klee’s abstract works. We learn Klee was also diagnosed with scleroderma five years before his death in 1940. Through good days and bad days, Ken has outlasted the odds. The film is made of personal recollections, including an incident at a dinner where he observes and makes eye contact with a patron eating a burger with gloves on that he believes was the initial “hex” that caused the onset of his first symptoms. Upon his 40th birthday and after a year of stability, his symptoms take a turn for the worst, leading to several painful procedures, including first the removal of finger cartilage to lock his fingers (which were turned inwards like claws) into a more natural position before having to take more drastic steps.

Telling the story of his own affliction, Angel Applicant is a captivating self-portrait that––like the work of graphic-designer-turned-filmmaker Mike Mills––uses everyday objects and works of art to make sense of one’s own life. Meditating on Klee’s work, Ken finds a new understanding of his own life and context, creating what feels like a cinematic letter to the future, as if Myer is leaving his own record like Klee. The film is both personal and playful, using metaphoric imagery like a piñata to explain the damage inflicted by scleroderma which attacks all organs, leaving the 40-year-old with a lung age of 143 as the skin around his knuckles starts breaking open.

Still life, as Ken tells it, is not all doom and gloom, tracing his story from early days in art school to landing his dream job at Wieden + Kennedy (listed as one of the film’s production companies). Ken finds himself living, for much of his adult life, a fairly normal way, getting married and having a daughter. The later passages are both heartbreaking and inspiring: things take a turn for the worse right after he makes a pilgrimage to Switzerland to see Klee’s work up-close. Here he reconciles the notion of angels through Klee’s 1939 painting “Angel Applicant,” made a year before the artist’s death.

A generous, personal portrait, Angel Applicant––documentary jury award winner at this year’s SXSW––is mostly about leaving a legacy. Ken’s work is far from over, and this is a rich gift––it beautifully explores Ken’s connection with Klee and his own process of healing. 

Angel Applicant premiered at SXSW 2023.

Grade: B+

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