Last Picture Show

With a new Maryland copyright law set to make his art illegal, bootlegger Jon Routson faces the end.

June 22, 2004|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Jon Routson filmed Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. He filmed E.T. He filmed The Passion of the Christ and Kill Bill, Volumes 1 and 2. By his count, he has shot upward of 80 movies.

And each time, he did it with a camcorder he secreted into movie theaters around Baltimore, often on the day of each film's opening.

Routson, though, is no video pirate, if by that you think of someone making bootleg copies of movies to sell on the streets of New York or to dump onto the Internet. Routson made his bootleg videos for art.

Really. His films of films - often poorly framed, poorly focused and occasionally with a big fat head obscuring the view - have been shown in a New York gallery and generated positive notices in publications such as The New York Times, The New Yorker and the Village Voice. His work is, in the view of some critics, a clever comment on American film and the movie-going experience.

But if he decides to keep it up, Routson, a wispy 34-year-old with rectangular, black-framed glasses and a somnolent manner, could theoretically end up in jail. In October, Maryland will join more than a dozen states in making it illegal to illicitly videotape in a movie theater under any circumstances. Similar laws in other states have already netted the arrests of alleged bootleggers, some of them rooted out by theater employees wearing night-vision goggles.

So Routson, a subdued, solitary man living in an airless Charles Village apartment, says that, for now, his movie bootlegging days are behind him. Much to his perplexity, he finds himself at a tense intersection between artistic expression and copyright infringement at a time of dizzying technological change.

While the movie and recording industries aggressively crack down on those they believe illegally appropriate their products, some see their methods as too blunt to distinguish between true pirates and someone like Routson, who incorporates the works of others to express something singularly his.

"In some circumstances, such as this artist, the [anti-camcording] laws violate his First Amendment right because he's not interested in piracy," argues Marjorie Heins, founder of the Free Expression Policy Project at New York University. "He's interested in making a comment on the entire experience of movie-going."

Routson, she says, is following a long tradition of renowned artists, including Andy Warhol and Richard Prince, who manipulate the images of others to make their own cultural comment.

Charges of overkill

Critics of the new anti-camcorder laws accuse the movie industry of overkill. They say that existing copyright laws are protection enough and besides, such laws don't target the true culprits. They point to a recent AT&T Labs study showing that a large proportion of pirated films discovered on the Internet originated from leaks within the movie industry rather than from bootlegs shot in movie theaters. (A spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America calls that report "simply not true.")

"These laws," says Jason Schultz, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "are more of a PR stunt to go after the occasional bootlegger who manages to capture some grainy distorted version in a dark movie theater."

Routson recognizes the subversive nature of his bootlegs, but he doesn't see himself as anything but an artist. "It's not like I'm selling knockoffs of Louis Vuitton handbags on a corner," he says. "None of my videos are even for sale."

In fact, he has never sold any of his artwork, although he has been exhibited in New York and Washington. He would like to make a living as an artist, but now scrapes by with an occasional job painting houses or designing Web pages. He has taught at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington and once did a five-year stint in record management at the Justice Department. He grew up near Washington but has lived in Baltimore six years. "It's cheap," he says, "and then you kind of get stuck here."

He has the pasty complexion of someone who spends a lot of time in dark theaters - and the twig-like frame of one who skips the concession stand. He answers every question deliberately, as though he were wired to a lie detector. The only information he withholds are the names of theaters where he has shot his films. He also declines to be photographed in a way that would identify him. (He doesn't like having his picture taken, he says. When pressed on why not, he replies in an e-mail, "I dunno, just don't.")

Artist's technique

Talking about Routson's technique in his recording of movies almost sounds absurd. He chooses seats at random (his one motive is to avoid detection). He holds his camera at chest-level without even looking through the viewfinder or at the LCD screen (that would wear down the battery); he just does the best he can to aim the lens toward the screen and shoot as much of the film as possible.

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