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 Hooded Justice on Letterboxd

    "You can learn a lot about someone and what they're interested in by what questions they're asking."

    This one starts out rough, with director Aaron Brookner wrangling with the current occupant of The Bunker (William S. Burroughs's well-named Bowery hideaway) over access to his uncle Howard's archives, which are stored there because he made a documentary about Burroughs in the early '80s. Thankfully, that hurdle is cleared early on, allowing Aaron to quickly pivot to the story of the doc's protracted production, on which Howard had the assistance of sound recordist Jim Jarmusch (who pops up in some of the outtakes) and cinematographer Tom DiCillo (who does not for obvious reasons).

    This one also ends rough since Howard Brookner was diagnosed with AIDS in the mid-'80s and, as a direct result, died before he could complete his first fiction film, 1989's Bloodhounds of Broadway. And since he kept a video diary during that time, it's possible to watch him become more frail as the disease takes hold. It would be nice, though, if his middle film, 1987's Robert Wilson and The Civil Wars, could find its way out of the archive where it currently resides. I'm sure there must be some interest in it.

  • ★★★★★ 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 Peter Valerio on Letterboxd

    Filmmaker Howard Brookner died of AIDS in the late eighties leaving behind the beginning of a promising body of work. A very personal portrait, made by his nephew, incorporating home movies, archival footage and outtakes from his films, interviews with family and friends. A collection of memories rather than a eulogy.

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