Uncle Howard

When Howard Brookner lost his life to AIDS in 1989, the 35-year-old director had completed two feature documentaries and was in post-production on his narrative debut, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Twenty-five years later, his nephew, Aaron, sets out on a quest to find the lost negative of Burroughs: The Movie, his uncle's critically-acclaimed portrait of legendary author William S. Burroughs. When Aaron uncovers Howard's extensive archive in Burroughs’ bunker, it not only revives the film for a new generation, but also opens a vibrant window on New York City’s creative culture from the 1970s and ‘80s, and inspires a wide-ranging exploration of his beloved uncle's legacy.

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  • ★★★★ review by nichy6 on Letterboxd

    There is nothing sadder than to live a life vicariously... except perhaps to make a movie vicariously.

  • ★★★½ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd

    My family was never one for home movies. I don't recall us even owning a video camera, though they were pretty common at the time. I think I'd be a little spun out to be able to connect with my youth in that way. If Aaron Brookner's experience in Uncle Howard is anything to go by, I'm spot on in my assessment. 

    To arrive at that (rather odd) comparison takes a few adjustments. For one, my family didn't leave behind a significant film covering an American cultural icon, in Aaron's particular case, his uncle, Howard Brookner garnered critical acclaim for his documentary Burroughs: The Movie, the making of which brought him into contact with the creme de la creme of independent film making in the 1980s (John Waters, Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver) and cultural heavyweights of the decades prior (Ginsberg, Warhol and of course Burroughs).

    Uncle Howard takes that "how cool is this" fandom as its giddy starting point, as Aaron sets out to recover the archived footage from his uncle's famous work to prepare it for restoration, and it will be a fascinating watch for fans of Burroughs: The Movie, Burroughs the man, or film making in that era. 

    But Uncle Howard's real emotional power comes when it veers from Aaron's original intentions, which it does with surprising fluidity once Aaron realises, surprisingly, that Burrough's isn't the most interesting person in his film.

    The resulting documentary reaps the rewards of the startling intimacy between the film maker and his subject just as it suffers some of its pitfalls, especially as in its closing sections. Most will forgive the indulgence though, especially in the light of the Aaron's illuminating revitalisation of his uncle's reputation.

    A touching reverie on what the HIV/Aids epidemic snatched from us creatively and personally.

  • ★★★★★ review by DrFox on Letterboxd

    A transfixing documentary. What begins as a fun detective story, quickly expands to create a gateway into another time, another world of bigger than life art-world legends and a lost tale of heartbreaking promise, cut short far too soon.

    As close as we've gotten to time travel, so far.

  • ★★★★ review by Søren Hough on Letterboxd

    I'm grateful to have learned about a promising director who was, I assume, a much better filmmaker than his nephew who made this doc.

    Howard Brookner's films promised an outstanding career we never saw. He collected stunning footage of Zappa, Burroughs, Anderson, Warhol, Ginsberg, Jarmusch and more. He produced a critically acclaimed documentary about Burroughs in the 80s and went on to direct two more feature length films.

    It's a shame that Aaron, his nephew (and maybe that's the problem), only managed to eke out a serviceable (by no means bad) film from this wealth of archival material. His subject was an interesting character remembered by many but who the general public doesn't know. Howard was surrounded by some of the most fascinating names in recent art history.

    Yet Aaron never quite manages to extract the magic from these names, nor does he ever fully give us Howard in any way but his own personal memory of the man. The result is a sweet but ultimately too personal take on a shining star in cinema whose light was snuffed out before it really had a chance to shine.

  • ★★★½ review by Scott Renshaw on Letterboxd

    Director Aaron Brookner is clearly passionate about re-discovering the legacy of his uncle, filmmaker Howard Brookner, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1989 at the age of 34. And that passion may be the one thing interfering in this fascinating portrait of a career cut short. Beginning with an attempt to recover Howard’s archive of materials related to his 1983 documentary about William Burroughs, Uncle Howard explores its subjects other projects—the documentary Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, and the Madonna/Matt Dillon feature Bloodhounds of Broadway—while also offering a chronicle of New York in the 1980s, as the specter of AIDS came to hang over the lives of so many artists. The archival footage alone is terrific, capturing Howard’s work with future directors Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo as part of his crew, and wonderful bits like Burroughs reciting “Howl” while Alan Ginsburg stands next to him correcting Burroughs’ mistakes. Yet while it’s understandable that Aaron Brookner wants to look at Howard not just as an artist, but as a person, the snippets from family members and Aaron’s own intrusions as a character feel like burying the lede. It’s still worth realizing that, as much as Aaron lost a beloved family member, we all lost years of work from a generation of gifted artists.

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