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 manousos on Letterboxd

    Uncle Howard is a documentary made by Aaron Brookner mostly from odds and ends of unused film footage left behind by his uncle, a young filmmaker named Howard Brookner, with some contemporary footage of the people from his 2 documentaries he made in the early 80s (William Burroughs and Robert Wilson) and the one drama he directed though he died before it opened (Bloodhounds of Broadway) from complications with AIDS. Brookner, through his association with Burroughs ran around from the late 70s to the late 80s within a culture of beat poets, and underground writers and artists. His boyfriend for ten years was the male model turned novelist, Brad Gooch, who stayed by him to the bitter end. His nephew, Aaron, who was quite young when he died, nonetheless adored him to the point that he ended up going to NYU film school himself and this film is the result of that arc of his life. It's a very sad and mournful film but you get interviews with people like Jim Jarmusch and even see him as a young man doing sound for Brookner's documentaries with that shock of hair except it's black and not the characteristic white we're used to seeing. It's a multilevel narrative that bounces back and forth between Brookner's early New York film school days and the present which shows Aaron having some trouble acquiring the footage from storage facilities and John Giorno's bunker space in the Bowery. The interviews with Brookner's parents in the present reveals that they were stricken when he announced to them that he was gay, showing that this minority has a long way to go before their presence is taken for granted. And for those people in the 70s who had to get used to such an identity showing up among their families to see so many of them fall to the scourge of AIDS must have seemed like the trumpet of a prophecy come true -- but a fascinating and disturbingly mournful film nonetheless. It takes a little while for the pall and fascination of the film to seep into you but once it does you can't stop it any more than you can stop yourself from looking at a car accident that's been beautifully staged.

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