Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 16, 2022 8:46 pm 
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Designer Bruce Mau dictates his own portrait

Two takeaways from this brief, breezy and rather too superficial documentary, mostly narrated through into-the-camera address - framed by elegant, design-friendly white spaces - by Bruce Mau himself, is that the man is a major visionary designer who thinks REALLY BIG, and that he grew up in desolate conditions. His family lived on the edge of hundreds of miles of forest in Sudbury, Ontario, a nickel mining town whose ruined environment is so bare NASA sent people there to experience what the surface of the moon is like. On top of that his father, a miner, was a brutal, violent alcoholic. In spite of that little Bruce grew up cheerful, but he got out at 17 to go away to school and never went back. The filmmakers accompany him on a return to the snow-covered ruin of his grim childhood home, a messy derelict wreck surrounded by half a dozen abandoned vehicles.

This film is engaging but promotional - like Mau's talk. Mau is a big, roly-poly sixty-ish man with thick curly hair and beard, a smooth talker with a ready smile and an easy laugh. He is great at addressing crowds of aspiring Chinese designers about the immense possibilities of their calling, which he defines as one step down from divinity. Everything is either accidental, he says, or designed. The planet grew up to its near-10-billion population one way, which can't go on, he says. Now we urgently have to redesign it. Moreover, everybody, he says, is a designer, and needs to step in and design. With his tremendous energy, big ideas, and fluent talk, he worked up to big assignments decades ago An early one that's perhaps the most appealing is the logos and visuals of MoMA in New York. He mulled over them for several weeks and told them they were exactly right and not to change a thing.

Mau has had some big jobs. Coca Cola is one. He redesigned that. One thing in the rebranding of the soft drink mega-company as making a massive play for global sustainability is manufacturing chairs made out of 100+ recycled plastic bottles. What he did about the gazillion plastic bottles isn't specified but we see some of them. Guatemala is another: yes, some dignitaries of this war-torn country asked Mau to come and redesign it, redesign the country. They wanted him to give it a new name, because "Guatemala" originally came from the Spaniards. "Guate" was the local Indian name, and they thought the country bad, so they added "mala," Spanish for bad, to it: Guatemala. Mau came up with an idea: break it into "Guate" and "Amala," meaning love. The country is still "Guatemala," but the name "Guate Amala" has also had some influence, cheered people up. One of the talking heads, Toronto artist James Lahey, thinks the grimness of Mau's origins was the only kind of beginning that could have produced such a visionary, powerfully driven man.

Another breathtaking job was, after the massive crush of pilgrims in the 2015 Mina stampede that led to the death of 700 and injury of 800, the Saudi government called Mau in to "rethink Mecca," the holiest city in Islam. He had some good ideas for a "thousand-year" design that would facilitate the flow of pilgrims and keep them safe as well as add symbolic meanings to different ways-in related to concepts of Islam. (Did he consult with Muslims on this? You would think the five "pillars" of Islam would be best, the shahada (profession of faith), salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fasting in Ramadan) and hajj (pilgrimage) would have been the place to begin. This project was not to be. First, as a non-Muslim Mau could not enter Mecca. Muslims disliked having a non-Muslim called in to redesign this most sacred of places.

We know Mau is a mover and shaker when we see Charlie Rose interviewed him in 2004. But better proof that he's the real thing comes in the way Mau has been called upon to collaborate with great architects and designers. Bruce Gerry describes wanting to work with him. Mau and the influential Dutch architect and designer Rem Koolhaas with the latter's O.M.A. (Office for Metropolitan Architecture) co-created a massive tome of design ideas, S,M,L,XL, that, someone says, no one actually reads through, but has become "something of a design bible" that many are inspired by - or at minimum must have on their coffee table.

Mau mounted a 2004-2005 mega-exhibition (with a related book and radio show) in the Vancouver Art Gallery in Canada that also traveled to Toronto and Chicago, "Massive Change" that, the film says, did better box office than Picasso. "It is not about the world of design. It is about the design of the world," went one of its typically catchy banners: Mau often talks in front of giant projected buttons with slogans ambitiously declaring the meaning of design on them (without his explanations, many of them will make no sense). This Toronto show, widely anticipated, got some raves and some pans. (A kind but questioning Globe and Mail review by Sarah Milroy mentioned its "stumbles" and moments of "vacuity.")

Recently he went to China to set up a new, much bigger mega-show, "Massive Action." We see him addressing attentive Chinese designers with variations on his inspiring pep talks. this time linking design firmly with the future of the human race. But then a US-China conflict caused the exhibition plan to be cancelled. The human race's future, as often nowadays, was put on hold.

Mau would say these failures don't matter, because what almost gets done may be just as influential - or something; his brand of forceful optimism is hard to imitate.

It's not unusual for gurus and visionaries to fall short on the personal side. Alan Watts continues to inspire many with his teachings about eastern thought, but admittedly was a "rascal" who womanized, drank, and smoked too much and died at 57. Mau admits that the way he lived, working 24/7, "like Seven Eleven," as Bisi Williams, Mau's engaging Nigerian-descent wife and collaborator puts it, and never sleeping enough, was allowing his body to grow by accident rather than by design. It caused his heart to get enlarged and grow weak. He says now he has "redesigned" it, including having a pacemaker installed. Nothing is said, but a scene of plates and dishes suggests he is following a better diet. Mau was chubby as a boy and is quite overweight, setting himself up for a heart attack. He needs to redesign his body and his lifestyle. But he clearly has flourished over a long career. Will he be able to change, till he has to?

Is visionary design truly a way of saving the world, as Mau thinks? Or is it just a particularly high level of bs, and self- and business-promotion? This film never goes deep enough to answer these questions or even to ask them. This film is a beginning, full of the flavor of the man and the sound of his voice. But its superficiality and lack of critical analysis are a disappointment. Though the man is engaging, if massively self-promotional, his hope and optimism remain unconvincing. For this writer his failure is his failure to question the idea of progress and consider that the aggravation, if not the source, of all the planet's problems is overpopulation.

Mau, 85 mins., debuted at SXSW Austin Mar. 16, 2021, showing also at Copenhagen (CPH DOX)), Haugesund, Norway, Montreal (Hot Docs), Rotterdam Architecture Film Festival, and Taillin (Black Nights). Its US release in theaters and on digital is scheduled for Mar. 18, 2022.



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