SANTA CRUZ — There's no shortage of movie theaters in this university town, but there's also no shortage of out-of-the-way patches of scrub.
Guerilla Drive-In prefers the latter.
At Guerilla Drive-In screenings, you don't shell out $12 for tickets or stretch out in stadium seats. Instead, you join a hundred or more cinema fans draped in blankets and hunkered down amid the weeds, watching films projected onto random walls.
Guerilla Drive-in has been a semi-underground summer diversion here since 2002.
If you're a believer, you grab a beach chair and a sweatshirt every other Friday night for free screenings of DVDs outdoors, enveloped by the chilly Santa Cruz fog.
"I love the vibe," said Alan Voegtlen, a high school Spanish teacher straddling his bicycle and toting a thermos of lemon-ginger yerba mate at a recent screening of "The Matrix."
"I love the smell of the grasses. I love people getting together as a community. It all has kind of a rainbow flavor to it."
Being Santa Cruz, it also has a political flavor that's half zany and half in-your-face.
"It's about getting people together to do something very deliberately outside the realm of commerce," said artist Rico Thunder, a creator of "industrial whimsy" who is a driving behind Guerilla Drive-In. "It's about reclaiming public space."
Mostly, Guerilla Drive-In shows movies on a patch of private land between a winery and some railroad tracks. The spot's owner, Bonny Doon Winery, even lets Guerilla Drive-In tap into its electricity.
"I'm a pretty laissez-faire person," said Bonny Doon's founder, Randall Grahm. "I probably should think more about liability issues, but I don't."
On this Friday night, though, the chosen locale for "The Matrix" was beneath the Soquel Avenue bridge spanning the San Lorenzo River -- a spot where police shut down a showing of "The Third Man" a couple of years ago because parkland was being used after hours. Both financially and philosophically, Guerilla Drive-In is opposed to acquiring the permits it would need for the use of public property after dark.
Above, traffic crossed the bridge into the city's downtown.
Below, young couples huddled together, drinking wine and viewing the 1999 sci-fi thriller. A software engineer sat beside his two young daughters half-asleep in their stroller. A few homeless men smoked cigarettes. Rico Thunder, known in his more mundane moments as Wes Modes, surveyed the scene from beneath his fedora, licking his chops over the prospect of another visit from the local constabulary.
"Can you think of any way the Santa Cruz police would look more like asses than to haul people in for showing free movies to the community in a public space on a Friday night?" he asked. "If I were the police, I'd judiciously ignore us. We're more trouble than we're worth."
The police evidently agreed.
"The department has a philosophy of dealing with larger issues," police spokesman Zach Friend said this week, adding that officers would have shown up if there had been a complaint.
Word of upcoming films is e-mailed to about 1,000 residents who have expressed interest. Equipment -- a projector, the marine batteries that run it, and a few other doodads -- is pieced together from donations.
There are a number of similar efforts across the U.S., some modeled after the one in Santa Cruz. In Los Angeles, a chapter of Mobmov, a mobile movie movement founded in Berkeley, has been booted out of its usual location, but organizers say they hope to find another image-friendly wall soon. Meanwhile, chapters in Long Beach and Orange County occasionally find buildings to use as screens as viewers watch from the comfort of their cars.
In Santa Cruz, Guerilla Drive-In is, in fact, strictly walk-in or bike-in, and soon will again be nomadic. Its vacant lot near the winery has been sold; it's now the future site of a natural-foods store.
But Guerilla Drive-In has learned to improvise. On this Friday night, the marine batteries punked out. Someone ran an extension cord from the batteries to an old Mitsubishi Lancer chugging away in the parking lot of an Indian restaurant. "The Matrix" picked up and droned on:
"Like everyone else, you were born into bondage," a character named Morpheus boomed into the night. "Into a prison that you cannot taste or see or touch. A prison for your mind."
Other offerings -- such as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" -- have been less grim, but all are supposed to be "subversive," said Stacey Falls, a member of the collective.
Choosing a season's worth of movies involves hours of meetings.
Falls, a 29-year-old chemistry teacher, had to justify her choice of "Dirty Dancing" -- a story of teen romance at a resort hotel -- not just to other members but to angry fans who confronted her at places like the local farmers market.
But Falls persisted, got it on the schedule and even took a mambo lesson so she could teach others at the screening. One man was so into the spirit of the film that he brought a disco ball, spinning it occasionally under the stars.
In a couple of hours, everyone was moving and grooving to the film's climactic dance scene.
"To some people, it was just a cheesy love story," Falls said. "But it actually does a pretty good job of examining class dynamics."