Mau delivers only celebratory mythos and lore where a thornier portrait of its subject could have built something far more meaningful.
In this era of virtually boundless film content, the biographical documentary can be said to have entered a golden age. A compelling figure remains one of — if not the — most surefire ways to bring an issue, a theme, or a history into stark relief. The person centered possesses an authority that satisfies our craving for evidential substance, and provides the rhetorical theatrics required to get butts in seats or glue eyes to screens. Done well, the film’s larger ideas linger long past the end credits, made tangibly trenchant through the specificity mined from unpacking the drama of a life. Bruce Mau, the multihyphenate superstar designer, will undoubtedly be remembered for his larger-than-life ideas. Benji and Jono Bergmann’s eponymously titled film traces the arc of his journey from poor Sudbury kid to venerated visionary. It’s a bright supercut of his greatest hits, certain to thrill fans and admirers, but Mau ultimately fails to soar, its desire to be a rich character examination frustrated by its flirtation with being a self-branding exercise.
The first few minutes basically function as a trailer for the next hour and change, as excerpted broadcasts and snippets from interview subjects plug Mau’s vaunted status over a bubbly pop-jazz fusion. Here the film establishes its thesis, its brand platform: Bruce Mau is a genius, a legend, an indispensable fixture of modern design. Design first piqued Mau’s interest as a child when he saw Expo ’67 on his boxy, black-and-white TV. That peek into an alternate universe sparked the fire that would fuel his journey forward, surmounting poverty, childhood abuse, and his city’s bleak brutalism. The expansive nature of his mind ensured the Ontario College of Art would hold his interest for only so long. Pentagram failed to satisfy his creative drive as well. It’s in launching his own studio, Bruce Mau Design, that the film suggests Mau finally became the master of his own destiny. A montage of creative work and studio portraits indicate his arrival.
Mau and his collaborators often speak of him “doing things differently.” How that’s captured in his process is often left untouched. Perhaps as a competitive businessman he’s leery of detailing his best practices. Instead, the viewer is repeatedly treated to dazzling shots of his deliverables, framed so impressively by camera as to be enshrined. The viewer understands S, M, L, XL, the revolutionary design bible Mau co-authored with Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to be revolutionary because accounts of the acclaim it received hailed it as such. The section on his Coca-Cola project is less a peek behind the curtain than an opportunity for the stakeholders involved to wax poetically about how they jump-started a commercial sustainability movement. We see more under the hood when the film shifts to Mau’s Mecca redesign project, but it skirts around examining the forces that undermined it. Lest you proceed through the film thinking Mau would ever take an L, tacked on is a brief nod to the third-party private-public interests that ran with Mau’s vision in their own developments.
Mau often seems hellbent on only showing the highlight reel. “Bruce was good when there weren’t any problems,” mentions one former co-worker, Jim Shedden, before adding that in contrary situations, Mau’s approach had a tendency to bite people in the ass. It’s a seed planted ninety seconds in that never sees much sunlight. Mau’s wife, Bisi Williams, alludes to the major pushback he received from within his own studio for bringing Coca-Cola on as a client. The film brushes aside the point for a chance to spotlight the leadership’s spin on the matter. The students of Mau’s Institute Without Boundaries struggle with his style of guidance — or lack thereof — on an exhibition they’re preparing, said at one time to be “near mutiny.” A smash-cut to the completed installation, “Massive Change,” attracting gawking spectators swiftly defuses that building tension. Missed opportunities like these deflate the film, rendering its investigations toothless and its slickly kinetic visual styling superficially sanitized.
It all may be fitting; Mau is not the study of a great man but a distillation of a great man’s persona into filmic form. Mau espouses a personal philosophy of fact-based uber optimism, being grounded just enough in reality to comment on it while going to extreme lengths to maintain a positive spin on things. It figures as a countervailing force against the cynical nihilism that a life in Sudbury ought to have saddled him with — and the tremendous amounts of compulsion, rage, and pain at least one interviewee suggests Mau may repress. The film’s avoidance of these thornier aspects mirrors Mau’s own, or at least his unwillingness to unpack these traumas on camera. No one is asking for misery porn, yet the film’s adversity allergy flattens a fascinating man into an extended CV. Segments of the film serve as a platform for Mau to proselytize, championing his rosily Rousseauian view of humankind or the importance of putting out “pure signals” to attract the partners you need. Mau the TEDx self-help guru is more polished and less interesting than Mau the examined design maverick, and Mau would work better chopped into bite-sized Louisiana Channel YouTube clips than it does as a feature-length documentary. We receive celebratory mythos and lore in place of anything that feels truly essential.
Published as part of Before We Vanish — May 2022.