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In the age of endless streaming and digital cinema, Michael Aguirre is preserving the art of 16mm (millimeter) film through his traveling cinema project, See It On 16mm.
Aguirre, an Orange County native, has taken his love for film and passion for 16mm films around California, bringing both a comforting nostalgia to older film fans and creating an amazing new experience for younger film fans. The Cal State Long Beach graduate is taking his passion and dedication to film, working towards a master’s degree in archival and restoration, to help preserve the physical films he loves most.
Sharing with us the films he enjoys most, Aguirre also shares what started his interest in 16mm films and his dedication to preserving the medium.
Bonilla: Which films are your favorite movies?
Aguirre: One of my favorite movies is Switchblade Sisters. I adore that movie. Back when I first started watching blaxploitation, I was super heavy into Foxy Brown and Coffy. Once you start learning about the directors, I learned that Jack Hill directed those films.
Switchblade Sisters is just wild and fun. It’s not a great movie, but I found myself putting it on repeat all the time. I have a bunch of movies like that: they’re not great movies, but I can come home and watch them every day. Another bad one is Neon Maniacs from 1986. It’s one of my favorite movies, but it’s a terrible movie. I can watch that movie every day.
You mentioned Jack Hill. Who are some of your other favorite filmmakers?
I love Jesús Franco’s stuff, especially the stuff he did with Lina Romay. Just the way he frames her and does movies with her, you can tell he’s so in love with her. You can just see it in the camerawork. I know a lot of people don’t like that stuff, but it makes me happy.
For Hollywood directors, I get a kick out of Mel Brooks. I still watch his films. All his stuff reminds me of Looney Tunes.
If I were to say modern directors, it would be Jordan Peele. With Get Out, that’s one of the movies that floored me. You don’t know what you’re watching at first. As soon as Chris goes to the sunken place, I thought, “Holy shit!”
When did you develop an interest in 16mm film?
It was about eight or nine years ago when I started really paying attention to film screenings and stuff like that. Then, it was about five or six years ago that I started collecting.
During the quarantine, I got very serious about 16mm. I started being more involved in restoration projects, helping with some films, especially cleaning and restoring, because some of them were crap. They needed a lot of physical work on them.
I started collecting features and stuff for screenings in my backyard. When I was screening Rolling Thunder and Death Wish on 16mm in my backyard, Trevor, the programmer from The Frida, came to my house. He stayed and watched both films.
Afterward, Trevor asked me if I would like to do something like this at The Frida. Initially, I wasn’t really thinking long-term. I was going to be doing stuff like this, and thought, “Oh, cool! It would be nice to show it in the theater for once, instead of my backyard.”
When and what did you screen your first film at The Frida?
I think it was October 2020 when stuff was barely opening up. They did a member screening, which was a secret horror film. I showed a print of The Funhouse by Tobe Hooper. I played it and it was just crazy. I’d never projected like that in a theater.
Since then, I just kept doing more events with The Frida. Then, a lot of other places were suggesting that I should come to town, or you should try this out. Now, I’ve been touring.
What other theaters have you worked with?
The Gardena Cinema, Balboa Theatre, Digital Gym Cinema, and Lumiere Cinema. I’ll be back at the Gardena at the end of March for the Wes Craven secret feature that I’m doing. I’ve done plenty of stuff with the Secret Movie Club in L.A. I’m also going to be doing stuff with the Long Beach Art Theatre come April.
How do you screen films at multiple theatres?
Anytime I play a print of something, I actually go screen it for at least three to five days, all throughout California. I’m noticing there are not a lot of places outside of L.A. that have film projection or access to this stuff. To be able to have a mobile setup and to go around California is awesome. It’s been super cool!
People are finally starting to notice what it is that I’m doing and reaching out. It’s so nice to wake up in the morning and get messages from people. They say thank you for the screening last night, that they had a good time, and ask more questions about stuff. I just love it! People are showing interest in it. That’s how to See It On 16mm started.
When developing your programming, how do you decide on what to play?
Since it’s stuff that’s so hard to find and it’s super expensive, sometimes, I’ll go based on my own collection or stuff that my friends also collect that I’ll rent or loan stock from them.
If I have a film that I want to play as a double feature with another movie, I’ll hit up one of my friends and they will send me a copy like a kung fu film. Those prints are really rare. I don’t necessarily collect kung fu in my own personal collection of films, but my buddy does in New Jersey. He imports everything from South Africa. They come in pallets to the airport in New Jersey. He goes and picks them up with a truck. I asked him to send me three films just in case one of them is bad. One of them was bad. He sent me the kung fu films that I did for the mystery double feature. That’s how I’m able to search the prints. It gives me an idea of what’s available.
Some months, I’ll play more Hollywood-type of films that I know will be more highly attended, seat-wise. The next month, I try to do more stuff for me and the rest of the weirdos, where it’s a little bit more offbeat programming and under-watch stuff. Those are not as attended as the Hollywood stuff. The next month, I have to go back to playing something that the crowd wants to see.
What are some of your favorite movies to show?
I love showing genre films. Currently, what I try to do with all the films I show is play anything that is not the normal Hollywood stuff. Most of the stuff I do is secret. People are having to trust me. I’ve played some wild stuff, and they really enjoyed it.
Recently, I played Darktown Strutters. It’s a very wild satire movie. It’s a blaxploitation film. And it’s not watched much. I want people to watch that.
I really enjoy blaxploitation and even sexploitation stuff. All those films that you’re not supposed to be watching.
I grew up very conservative and Catholic. I was not allowed to watch any of that stuff. As soon as I became an adult, I was free to go watch everything, and I delved into everything. It’s all I watched and still do the same. I sometimes wake up at 4 AM to watch a movie before I go to work.
How did you learn to project film?
This was an adventure that was self-taught through videos and on film forums, asking questions and looking for information like that. Eventually, we started an apprenticeship with a well-known projectionist in Burbank. I’ve been able to learn a lot from him. He’s been very giving in his knowledge. It’s been great. We’ve been learning how to work on projectors and repair the machines, especially for screenings.
A lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of film collectors but not a lot of people that can actually fix the equipment and run the film. If we don’t have film projectors, there’s no way to run the prints. It’s a very important undertaking for me to preserve that art and to make sure that we still have machines. My goal is to be old, retired, and still able to watch films with my friends.
What have been some of your favorite films that you’ve screened?
Night of the Living Dead is always fun to screen with people. I just did a tour of it last October. You’d be surprised how many people have not seen the original movie. At most of the screenings, more than half of the crowd has not seen it. There are people that watched the 1990 remake of it before they watched the classic one.
Blazing Saddles is always fun to play, just to hear the crowd’s reaction. I’ve been able to play that twice, once in November and then once last February for Gustavo Arellano’s birthday. I have no problem projecting that movie if I had projected it every week for the rest of my life. “Mongo only pawn in game of life.”
It was super fun to be able to watch the print that I had, which was Frank Sinatra’s print at one point. This was from the Sinatra estate. It’s a gorgeous print. The colors are pretty good on it, and there’s not much wear. That’s one of the nicer prints that I’m proud of getting.
Did Frank’s print smell of cigarettes and Jack Daniel’s?
Which films would you like to show in the future?
A lot of people might not know this, but 16mm prints were printed in fewer quantities than 35mm prints. 35 prints were meant to go to the theaters for audiences, while the 16 prints were sent to libraries or army stations for very small screenings. It’s harder nowadays to find some movies on 16 mm prints because some prints weren’t even made in 16 mm prints.
One of the movies I’ve been looking for and love is called Malibu High. Also, I’ve been wanting to screen a lot more Jamaa Fanaka films. He did the Penitentiary series and Welcome Home Brother Charles, also known as Soul Vengeance. I’ve been wanting to do sort of like a triple feature with those early films from Fanaka. It’s just so hard finding those prints. I haven’t been able to track anything down.
If someone asked you why they should see a film on celluloid film, what would you tell them?
I would start off by letting them know it’s not perfect. Unlike most theaters or what you watch at your house today, which are playing movies digitally. With film, it’s an actual object that has a history to it. That has life to it. A lot of these prints were played in front of multiple audiences. It’s being able to run the film and projector for an audience, which is, first of all, nostalgic for a lot of people.
Secondly, we’re revisiting a time when that was a communal experience for people. It was the main communal experience for movie watching before it became popular to watch it on VHS and stuff like that. People treated it like it was a sanctuary.
What is your goal with See It On 16MM?
I’m trying to keep live film alive as much as possible. I show a movie that may have been forgotten. It’s on film and not digital. You’ll be lucky to have one packed house. And I’m okay with that. I’m okay that maybe only a fourth of the house is packed with people that appreciate the art and appreciate new discoveries instead of being spoon-fed what they should watch or what they should listen to.
3/30 (Thursday): Secret West Craven 16 mm Feature – The Frida Cinema
(Santa Ana, CA)
3/31 (Friday): Secret West Craven 16 mm Feature – Gardena Cinema
4/1 (Saturday): Secret West Craven 16 mm Feature – Digital Gym Cinema
(San Diego, CA)
4/8 (Saturday): Secret Member ONLY Screening – Whammy! Analog Media (Silverlake, CA)
4/19 (Wednesday): Reefer Madness/Marihuana 16 mm Double Feature – The Frida Cinema
(Santa Ana, CA)
4/20 (Thursday): Reefer Madness/Marihuana 16 mm Double Feature – Long Beach Theatre
(Long Beach, CA)
4/21 (Friday): Reefer Madness/Marihuana 16 mm Double Feature – Digital Gym Cinema
(San Diego, CA)
4/22 (Saturday): Reefer Madness/Marihuana 16 mm Double Feature – Gardena Cinema
4/28 (Friday): Reefer Madness/Marihuana 16 mm Double Feature – Balboa Theatre (San Francisco, CA)
7/1-7/2 (Saturday – Sunday): Secret 1980s 12-hour horror marathon – The Frida Cinema
(Santa Ana, CA)
Featuring surprise celebrity guests from the films being played and much more!
More dates to be announced.