A few weeks ago, Russian director Alexander Sokurov came to the Forum des Images to present a short documentary and his feature film Russian Ark, in honor of the program dedicated to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
One of the many elements that the filmmaker spoke about in his master class was the idea that there were no more great masters. According to him, many people work in film and in media today, but most of them don’t have a background or understanding of the art form – or art in general. That comment cannot be taken lightly by an aspiring filmmaker or artist, especially when coming from a successful person from the milieu.
His respect for the great masters is clearly seen in his journey through the corridors of the Hermitage museum (where he shot the entirety of Russian Ark), one of the largest and most prestigious museums in the world. He admitted, in front of the irritable interviewer, that he often went to the Hermitage to pay his respects to his masters, like a student visiting his most admirable professor – and not simply seeing them like a tourist looking at a landmark that gets crossed off a list.
One of the lessons that I gained from this master class was his impression that you learn from the masters, and generate your own thoughts and conclusions by looking at their artwork closely. According to him this is what our generation lacked.
As I see it, the ability to become a great master is in part to have the great knowledge of the medium in question, as well as of other mediums, in order to formulate something new. This “new” project is not necessarily based on the past, but the artist uses a familiar know how or experience to create it.
But is the master alone in filmmaking? Is a great story or idea simply great for being issued by one person, or is it the contribution from others working on the project that makes them greater? This is an important question in Filmmaking because a collaborative aspect is essential to the process. In other art forms, one person alone can create the entirety of the process.
And is the master’s idea original or the fruit of another seed? The idea of knowing what comes before, and being inspired by it, is clearly visible in some of the contemporary filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese – who has an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema and clearly references his masters. But is that what standing on the shoulders of others is? Reference, pastiche and puns? Are these the tools that filmmakers, or artists in general, use to create nowadays? Shouldn’t it rather be an examination of the work, a personal reinterpretation and then a new creation? Is this what it takes to become a great master?
Standing on the shoulders of giants is what our generation and newer artists will continue to do. Nonetheless, getting acquainted with the giants and, more importantly, their work (or even eventually becoming one) renders some, like Sokurov, skeptical about the future of Art.