LAST PICTURE SHOW

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

As a result, audience members walk through his frames, or can be heard coughing or munching their popcorn. Cell phones sometimes trill. Often his camera drifts away from the screen altogether until he catches himself and rights it.

"The more I'm into the movie, the more it points up," he says. "If I'm bored, it sort of points down." His aim, he says, was nothing more complicated than making a record - a home-movie is his term - of his movie-going experience.

The message is not in his selection of movies, either. He'll see anything, and he doesn't offer particularly sophisticated comment on movies. He filmed The Passion of the Christ three different times because different friends wanted to see it. ("Did you see it?" he asks. "It's horrible.") Based on his film-going experience, his overall impression is that most movies are "pretty crappy."

He also doesn't concern himself with what actually ends up on his videos. He doesn't edit what he has recorded and sometimes doesn't even watch his recordings all the way through - not even in preparation for shows, two of which were held at Team Gallery in New York. The shows, the most recent one this spring, consisted of various of his recordings showing on three separate and disconnected screens.

Don't expect Routson to offer insight into his own work, even after carefully pondering the question.

"I don't really think it has a meaning, at least not as I've constructed it," he says, fingering the rim of his coffee cup at a Donna's restaurant near his apartment. He pauses for a moment as though reconsidering, but then concludes firmly, "Yeah, they don't mean anything."

His works may be visual, but they are best described as conceptual. He once had a show in New York that consisted of allowing five cats to roam free in a gallery. A show in Washington featured his re-editing of one of Matthew Barney's surrealistic Cremaster films, imagining it as a television network production, complete with a Saturday movie-of-the-week introduction, spliced-in commercials and an ABC-TV logo superimposed in the corner.

An ongoing project has taken Routson to dozens of shopping centers in the Mid-Atlantic where parents take their children to have their pictures taken with the mall's Easter Bunny. Routson pays the on-site photographer to shoot a picture of only the Easter Bunny. He purposely doesn't take the photographs himself.

"I didn't want to make decisions about how the bunny should be framed. It's more about the act of collecting." He thinks the whole series of photos, which he keeps in an album, may be about the children who are missing, but he's not sure about that yet.

Project's beginning

He embarked on the movie-recording project in 1999 when he was a grad student in the imaging and digital art program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He wanted to capture the experience of going to an opening day showing of the much ballyhooed Phantom Menace. He recorded it that morning, then immediately drove to a Brooklyn, N.Y., gallery which offered to screen it that night.

Jose Freire, owner of Team Gallery, was there. He loved the idea of Routson's entire movie project, which proceeded over the next four years through scores of other films. "Jon's work seemed like the purest conceptual art that anyone had come up with in a long time," says Freire. "People can engage with the ideas of the work without ever seeing the work."

Because Routson's bootlegs are poor quality, off kilter, and out of focus, Freire says, they compel viewers to think about the process of movie-making and movie watching in entirely new ways. They call attention to the artifice of movies and also to how we experience them, he says.

"Jon's bootlegs look different, the works actually look debased," Freire says. "He knocks films off their pedestal. They're not perfect anymore."

Freire said no one who came to gallery showings of Routson's bootlegs ever stayed more than half an hour. Whether they experienced his films as art or merely curiosity, Freire said, no one came for the opportunity to see The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the remake, not the original) or Something's Gotta Give for free. For that reason, Freire believes any law that would shut down an artist like Routson is too broad. "You could say what's the applicability beyond Jon, but I would say that before Jon, I would never have imagined anyone doing this kind of work. Who knows who else might be out there?

"The fact of the matter is that Jon isn't taking anything from anybody."

Time's up

During all the shooting he has done in movie theaters these last five years, Routson said he was only caught once. An usher at 8 Mile told him to knock it off. Routson apologized and shut down - for that day. But soon he was at it again, surreptitiously shooting many more movies.

Not any more. The new law persuaded him to give it up. The sponsor the new Maryland statute, Del. Theodore Sophocleus, an Anne Arundel Democrat, says Routson could always ask permission from theater owners, but Routson can't imagine explaining what he does and why.

Some authorities on civil rights believe Routson could mount a strong legal case against the law on First Amendment grounds. But the artist says he has no interest in becoming a martyr for free expression. In fact, he doesn't have strong objections to a law that prevents someone from taking a camcorder into a movie theater.

"I mean," he says, "how many other people are doing it for artistic expression?"

Besides, Routson says, this particular art project has probably run its course, and it's time to move on to something else.

Recently, he left his camcorder home when he attended Troy and The Day After Tomorrow. ("Those movies were kind of crappy," he says.) He did notice something missing while watching without his camcorder, though. Anxiety.

"You're always nervous and tense," he says about his clandestine filming. "It was making it no fun to go to the movies."

For the record, Jon Routson's last film was the Olsen twins' New York Minute. Look for it in an art gallery near you.

Jon Routson

Home: Baltimore (raised in Silver Spring)@SUBHEDOccupation: Artist

Age: 34

Education: B.A. Studio Arts, University of Maryland; M.F.A. Imaging and Digital Arts, University of Maryland Baltimore County

Exhibits: Free Kittens, Dooley Le Cappellaine, New York, 1992; Jon Routson's Bootleg, CRP Gallery, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1999; Jon Routson, Museum of Contemporary Art, Washington, 2002; Mama's Boys (Group Show), White Columns, N.Y., 2003-2004; Recordings and Recordings II, Team Gallery, N.Y., 2003, 2004

Quote: "Usually when I make stuff, I don't worry about whether it's art or not." -- Michael Ollove

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