DIR/ WRI: Aaron Brookner • PRO: Paula Vaccaro • DOP: Gregg de Domenico
André Döbert • ED: Masahiro Hirakubo • MUS: Jozef van Wissem • CAST: Aaron Brookner, John Giorno, Jim Jarmusch
Aaron Brookner’s documentary Uncle Howard is a gentle and intimate portrayal of his uncle Howard Brookner’s filmmaking career, focusing on the vibrant and tragic years of his uncle’s personal and public life in 1980’s New York and ending with his premature death as a result of AIDs at the age of 34 in 1989.
Howard was a central figure in the lively and somewhat underground indie New York filmmaking scene of the 1980s, making his debut feature during his time in film school about William Burroughs, the infamously intriguing and celebrated Beat writer. The first significant portion of Uncle Howard charts Aaron’s hunt for his uncle’s lost film Burroughs: The Movie (1983) in the almost windowless ‘Bunker,’ where Burroughs lived and the film is predominantly set. The section intercuts between scenes of the film itself as well as expertly preserved footage of the crew on set, with innumerable shots of a youthful Jim Jarmusch on sound. Aaron speaks with Jarmusch in the contemporaneously set segments of Uncle Howard, where Jarmusch offers a fond and humorous reflection upon this period of filming with Howard. The combined voice-over narration by Aaron and the intriguing archival footage from the film set eschews any glorification or romanticisation of the crew and Burroughs’ precarious lifestyles- Howard himself spent a period of time using heroin alongside Burroughs- but still retains an honest warmth and respect for the artists’ work and passion. This atmosphere underpins the film’s entirety, offering the backdrop from which an array of Howard’s friends, family and partners give voice to their love and high regard for the young filmmaker in a series of contemporary interviews with Aaron.
Like many autobiographically impelled works, the film lacks an editorial succinctness. Yet the oversupply of archival footage and flashback sequences only reinstate the profound wealth of influence that Howard had upon the people in his life, and particularly Aaron’s awe and pride in his uncle’s work. What the film lacks in relation to formal tautness is made up for in terms of emotional impact and resonance. Aaron’s love for, and devotion, to his uncle is rendered both through the abundance of personal footage of the two at family events, as well as the film’s formal saturation in Howard’s documented life during the ’80s.
Uncle Howard functions on two levels. Firstly, it serves as a personal and tragically tinged homage to Howard, given life by the interviews with his mother, who humorously reflects upon her son’s decision to pursue a career in film over law, and recounts the moment Howard first told her that he was gay and the fear she had for him given the lack of understanding surrounding homosexuality at the time. Yet, the footage from Howard’s social life and career tells a very different story, placing him firmly within the realm of a progressive artistic community, with an array of recognisable faces including Madonna, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and many others. This serves as the second narrative of Howard’s life, and undercuts the tragedy inherent within the film’s structure, given its elegiac quality of reflective loss. It is reiterated by Howard himself in a letter he writes to his parents shortly before his death, and which Aaron reenacts in both voiceover and hand written script onscreen. Howard vocalises the profound contentment he feels, despite the tragedy of dying so young, because he pursued his life to the fullest and achieved a great deal in such a short time.
Aaron has brought his uncle to life through Howard’s vibrant and commanding presence in the film’s archival footage, as well as Aaron’s own subtle narration of the events in Howard’s life. Howard emerges as both a mythic figure, adored and respected by so many celebrated and renowned artists and filmmakers, as well as a very genuine and real person, whose premature death is symptomatic of a tragic moment in our world history. Aaron has proven that film not only tells stories and recounts the histories of our past, but can preserve life and eclipse the finality of death.
Uncle Howard is released 16th December 2016