Early in the documentary MAU, Frank Gehry appears to talk about the titular figure: “The nice thing about Bruce Mau is I don’t know what he does for a living.” At that point in the film, I also did not know. I still don’t. MAU is ostensibly about the multi-hyphenate designer’s influential body of work, but his actual achievements are still fuzzy by the end. The most concrete notch in his belt is the 1995 artbook S,M,L,XL, his thousand-plus-page collaboration with Rem Koolhaas. (Mau’s wife and collaborator, Bisi Williams, describes his and Koolhaas’s relationship as “a love affair.”) The rest of the projects that directors Benjamin Bergmann and Jono Bergmann attempt to exult are more amorphous. There’s a short-lived campaign for Coca-Cola to “help think about the future of sustainability as a platform,” a scrapped plan to “rethink Mecca” to improve the pilgrimage experience, and a now-defunct “visual movement” to empower Guatemala to “recover [the] ability to dream and envision [the] future.”
Evidently, Mau specializes in language that means nothing. In the interviews that anchor the film, he draws from a seemingly bottomless well of vague, inspiring adages. “The only way to get above the din of competition is to focus our resources;” “When we fail to design, we design for failure.” He seems like a genuinely kind, thoughtful, and imaginative person, but the Bergmanns present him less as a creative professional and more like a self-help guru. He proclaims like dogma his “24 principles for design and life” (a compendium of which is available at West Elm for $70).
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Similar to how motivational speaking is Mau’s preferred mode of address, the documentary tries to turn his life story into inspirational fodder. To be sure, his upbringing was harrowing; he grew up under an abusive father in a remote mining town. But the ploy for one’s heartstrings doesn’t work, imposing a generic bootstrap narrative on a story that is surely more complicated and interesting. The film also doesn’t turn a blind eye to critiques of Mau, but it focuses on the wrong ones. “People often accuse me of being an optimist, and I am,” he says at one point — the equivalent of calling yourself a perfectionist when asked to describe your weaknesses in a job interview.
After being disappointed when his 2004 Vancouver exhibition Massive Change: The Future of Global Design failed to galvanize visitors into action (whatever that means,) Mau decided to launch a follow-up exhibition in 2019 in China, titled Massive Action. What is “massive action,” exactly? As he puts it, “It’s about what we’re capable of together […] when people come together and decide to change things, the power of that is really unmatched.” I don’t know what that means, and the film never supplements this explanation. We’ll never find out, in any case — amid diplomatic tensions between Canada and China, Massive Action was scrapped. MAU is too charmed by its subject to nail down what he does, or why people should even care about him in the first place.
MAU opens in select theaters May 13 and releases on home media June 7.