“Klee Wanted to Destroy the Convention of Angels in Their Historic Tradition”: Ken August Meyer on His SXSW Doc about Art and Illness, Angel Applicant
There’s the concept of art as therapy, and then there’s the concept of a specific artist as a therapist, which is how debuting filmmaker Ken August Meyer introduces the Swiss-German painter Paul Klee at the start of his Angel Applicant, premiering today in the SXSW Documentary Feature Competition. At the beginning of the 21st century, Meyer, an art director at Wieden+Kennedy, is struck by systemic scleroderma, a life-threatening autoimmune disease that causes scarring and tightening of the skin and which can damage internal organs. As he embarks on a treatment path, Meyer finds solace as well as a kind of wisdom in the images of the early modernist, who also suffered from the disease, which was posthumously diagnosed. (The term “systemic scleroderma” didn’t come into existence until 1950, ten years after Klee’s death.) Warm and surprisingly playful given its subject matter, Angel Applicant is both a cinematic memoir of reckoning with disability as well as a work of unconventional art criticism, demonstrating how formal elements of painters’s late works can have their roots in both the mental as well as the physical.
Over email, I discussed with Meyer his scholarship of Klee, the parallels between their lives, and the concept of a debut film as a kind of “lifeboat.”
Filmmaker: You studied the work of Paul Klee in school, and I’d like to know what your reaction to his work was then. Was he one of many artists you were drawn to? Did his work resonate in a particular way then, before you were struck by systemic scleroderma and before you delved deeply into his biography? Or was it really the fusion of the work, the biography and your own situation that caused this deeper appreciation of Klee?
Meyer: The design program I attended focused heavily on the Bauhaus, especially within pedagogical design principles but also in their aesthetic influence throughout the 20th century in so many ways. Of course, Paul Klee’s work during his time at the Bauhaus was central to my design and art history classes. I always loved his series of works that incorporated arrows and typography. I was drawn by the childlike simplicity that also had this sophistication to it. His watercolor ink transfers—The Twittering Machine and The Tightrope Walker—were at the forefront of my memory. I had a minor in illustration so there was an overlap there. Admittedly, these earlier works were far more familiar to me when I was first diagnosed with scleroderma and vice-versa. Much like the general biographies of him, his late works tend to be a shorter part of his story. However, when you look at his oeuvre catalogued in nine volumes, one third of them are dedicated to his last six years. This astonished me. I was inspired by that massive increase in productivity. When I was forced to take medical leave to slow my disease progression, that’s when I started a deeper dive—looking through each and every piece created, images and (importantly) their titles working in tandem to create expressions that I started connecting with on a much deeper level. I could see trends in his daily drawings that seemed to correlate with very specific ailments that I was just beginning to experience. But on a more emotional level, works that seem to circle around facing mortality or uncertainty hit me the most. I feel the personal importance in them. Side note: I often mistook some of his early work for Miro and Kandinsky in art history tests!
Filmmaker: You describe in the press notes the film as “a lifeboat, something to hold onto and give me a feeling of purpose and hope when it became necessary to take medical leave.” Could you speak about the particular challenges of having your lifeboat be a feature film? What were the production strategies you used to make this film given the physical adversities you were facing?
Meyer: I’m so glad you asked this as the mercurial and often invisible nature of living with chronic illness is sometimes misunderstood. To continue the metaphor, sometimes the wind picked up at my back and gave me momentum. At other times, when my lung inflammation worsened or intestinal malabsorption decreased my energy, my productivity slowed against a current. It was a journey of small strokes of the paddle when my body allowed me. But it was always a place I could go to just to simply think at the very least, my thoughts forming the story as I would lie for a nap. I think most of my voiceover was created in this state, when I felt the true effects of the disease. I certainly had to strategize how to use my limited energy, though. It became frustrating at times as the story became more clear in my mind, while it became more difficult to execute assets needed in camera or in the edit. We had to postpone things from time to time. The flexibility of my co-producer, cinematographer and good friend, Jason Roark, made it easier to plan the more elaborate and colorful vignettes when I was feeling good. Or at other times, to naturally work in a conventional verite mode, like the coverage at medical appointments and such. I actually think these adversities and the slow pace required to create the film ultimately allowed the film to organically feel like the journey it genuinely was.
Filmmaker: One of the film’s central structural elements is the counterpoint between your own biography and Klee’s. You share the same affliction, but your lives and your historical circumstances are obviously quite different. Could you discuss the film’s structure and this counterpoint and how it evolved throughout the cut?
Meyer: Yeah, absolutely. There is certainly a big gap in the times and cultural differences. The looming war in Europe most definitely was a big part of Klee’s life experience and affected his work as equally as his illness — especially being personally attacked by the Nazis. Oh, and I’m not one of the most influential artists of the century either! I wouldn’t even call myself an artist. I’m just a kid who grew up in Ohio who used imagination to fight boredom before stumbling into design and art direction from the advice of a high-school art teacher. Klee was one of the great modern art revolutionaries. I’m simply an amateur art historian. But on a personal level, some of the circumstances felt similar, but not in the way of artistic pedigree, but rather a psychological state. I spent most of my adult life being a part of a creative community, collaborating and sharing ideas with others, from my time in school leading up to my advertising career at Wieden+Kennedy—a place that is a power plant of ideas (and helped produce this film). I feel like I lost a part of myself not being around that energy on a daily basis. I was grieving the loss of that part of who I was in the same manner that Klee had felt a loss in his creative community after being removed from his previous faculty appointments in Germany. I had a greater appreciation of this parallel as the film evolved when we made our way to Switzerland — the grieving for a loss of one’s self and previous identity. Frankly, I think it’s the more universal truth of living with a progressive chronic illness that dovetails our stories.
Filmmaker: How has your experience working as an art director Wieden+Kennedy influenced your filmmaking in Angel Applicant, if it has?
Meyer: I fell in love with filmmaking as a part of working on commercial shoots. I hadn’t realized before I went into the direction of advertising how many award winning feature filmmakers cut their teeth in that area. Perhaps more so, how it was a playground for them to try new techniques and equipment before their next feature. l got some great advice from my mentor, Hal Curtis, to get myself away from craft services tables and pry my way up next to the director and DP on set, find out why they were switching lenses, why they were changing the lighting… that time on set was like being at one of the best film schools after all. I got the chance to absorb various acclaimed director’s treatments for commercial spots. That was a huge gift to learn the craft of sharing a vision with words, stills and film references. But above all, I learned the power of editing. I had the chance to sit in edit bays with some of the most talented film editors in the world and watch them work through their process. That’s where the real storytelling and magic happens. It’s my favorite part of filmmaking.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss the decision to use recreations, which are done sparingly and with the devastating device of the mannequin. I’ll confess to being just totally shocked by the scene at the deli, in which two women mistake you for a literal mannequin, even as I don’t doubt its authenticity.
Meyer: As I’ve told these stories to different people over the years, the ones which entail reenactments in the film, I have found that the way I fed the details was important. Of course there is a bit of hyperbole in film in the sense that these moments were dramatized and elongated in the scenes compared to the brief moments in which they actually occurred. But there is power in telling a story in the same way you might tell a friend… “Guess what just happened! To me?” I tried to keep that part authentic—how the event was perceived from my perspective. Telling the story to the audience as if they were seated across a coffee table from me. If that part works, then the visual is just a colorful device to lead the viewer into the unexpected.
Filmmaker: Paul Klee’s angels appear in the paintings you show in the film and, as suggested by the title of your film, attain significant metaphoric importance. After watching your film I flashed back to the writer Walter Benjamin, who was also inspired by a Paul Klee angel, his 1920 oil print, Angelus Novus. For Benjamin, the print was a prized possession, safeguarded continuously during the wars, and the meaning he bestowed upon this work — he saw the angel as, back turned, being blown by the storm of progress helplessly towards the future while surveying history’s mounting wreckage — is, many have argued, a more conflicted, or even pessimistic, one. To what extent were you tempted to engage with others’ interpretations of Klee and his work, or, to put it another way, how did you resist the urge to allow other interpretations of Klee to distract from the very personal ones you were constructing for yourself?
Meyer: I recall learning about that story in my copy of Paul Klee: The Angels. I had a lengthy conversation about Klee’s angels with his grandson, Alexander. A theme as you mentioned, not new in his later works, with Angelus Novus having been a work from 18 years prior to his later revisitation of the theme. Klee wanted to destroy the convention of angels in their historic tradition. To bring them down to earth, with all the flaws and impulses of humans, rather than these entities of perfection. In a lot of cases towards the end, it seems these angels questioned mortality and what lies beyond. Those works are full of commentary on humanity that I really connected with on an emotional level. They play a big part in tying my story together.
That’s a good question on the interpretations of others though. His drawings at times get really specific to ailments, ie, Storm in The Body, depicting an intestinal mess within a figure. A Character Hardens with the look of a puzzled face. They are almost quite literal at times. There is a great book [Paul Klee and His Illness] by a dermatologist, Dr. Hans Suter, who went to painstaking lengths to scientifically make the official connections that Klee indeed suffered from the systemic form of scleroderma. I referred to this book for a lot of medical information in addition to what I learned at the ZPK in Switzerland. Some of his own interpretations of some works from a doctor’s perspective are hard to argue against too, especially when put into context of history and the looming war. Other historians have shared similar viewpoints. In those instances, I enjoyed using his artworks as stand-in for my own condition. For instance, when getting bad news about a prognosis, ending the sequence with the angel painting titled Whence? Where? Whiter? I found my own interpretations of course too. One Who Understands to me looks like someone peering back through a window from another dimension with the eyes of someone recognizing a familiar face and circumstance. Because Klee was always exploring the hidden reality of things rather than reflecting what we see, there is rich ground for interpretation. Especially with cryptic clues left in the titles of his work as invitations back into the visual, as if to complete a thought. I believe he was cited as being open to the interpretations of others to be perhaps better than his own. The opening chapter painting titled Little Blue Handed Man: I see the sadness of someone with cold blue hands, and I simply cannot see anything else. Even if it has some other meaning, that’s the hidden reality for me.
Filmmaker: Finally, you have said you would like the film to raise awareness of systemic scleroderma, and the film ends with a title card suggesting new treatment avenues. How are you and your team thinking of using the film to connect and inspire this patient community going forward?
Meyer: You know know, this is all unfolding, but my personal goal is to try to build momentum for the film towards June 29th, World Scleroderma Day—the annual date that commemorates Paul Klee’s passing. We have a lot of work and outreach to do, but my hope is we can broaden the understanding of the disease and underscore the importance of research and funding, especially after the recent passing of Bob Saget, the biggest celebrity advocate for awareness and research fundraising, who had lost both his sister and good friend to the disease. Another ambition is to bring hope to those suffering from scleroderma and other autoimmune diseases. That it’s still possible to live a meaningful life. Perhaps I might inspire someone to do something ambitious in spite of their illness, just as Klee has inspired me to do.
This article’s introduction is an expansion of a blurb contained within our SXSW 2023 curtain raiser.