SXSW Film Review: Mau
Portrait of the designer has no room for criticism
By Josh Kupecki,
2:00PM, Mon. Mar. 22, 2021
It’s difficult not to look at Bruce Mau’s upbringing and see how it informs the famed designer’s ethos. Raised in the Sixties in Sudbury, Ontario, that city had a huge nickel mining industry, and the landscape of Mau’s childhood was one big chemical desert.
His father was a miner, a violent alcoholic, and Mau fled to Toronto for college as quickly as he could. Throughout his career, Mau has espoused a legion of maxims regarding his philosophy, but a main tenet of his is to “design for perpetuity.” One need only look at the gutted topography of his youth to surmise the man’s driving force.
Directed by Benjamin and Jono Bergmann, SXSW 2021 selection Mau is full of such mottos as the doc lays out Mau’s philosophy, the strong ties of which are sustainability, collaboration, and a rigorous optimism. We move through the world, Mau says, through a bifurcated lens. There are the accidental things that we experience and ones of our own design. We should endeavor to design our lives, from the smallest things around us to our largest goals, and he is here to help us achieve those goals. His design firm has been tasked with not only planning stadiums, cities, and corporate brands, but also at one point helping to redesign the holy city of Mecca and the Central American country of Guatemala. That’s a pretty intimidating résumé.
So intimidating, it seems, that the filmmakers end up with a fawning portrait of Mau that never moves beyond the survey course structure of “Mau 101.” Mau spends the film pacing around a minimalist set, addressing the camera, telling us that “if you can change the way Coca-Cola does something, you can change the way the world does something.” And while that may be true, there is never a question as to whether that “way” is a sweepingly viable one. In fact, there are no questions at all in Mau, no examination of how, say, Mau’s design philosophy sits within the context of the evolution of design as a whole. Or how his optimism or “vigilance of seeing” come across as naive in an extremely complex world, or even an acknowledgment the designer’s obvious megalomania. But it is evident in Mau’s design that there’s no room for that. Anyone looking for a film that treads beyond the path of hagiography should keep walking.