Uncle Howard, a documentary created and directed by Aaron Brookner, opens today in New York. It’s an intertwining tale of past and present, the story of filmmaker Howard Brookner — whose work captured the cultural changes of the late 1970s and early ’80s — and his nephew’s personal journey 25 years later as he sets out to locate his uncle’s missing films and thereby recover the legacy of a life cut short by AIDS in 1989.
Uncle Howard focuses on Aaron’s attempt to recover a lost documentary about William Burroughs that his uncle completed in 1983. The film was considered lost for 25 years. In his search, Aaron discovered a trove of films and footage in addition to the Burroughs reels, including home movies of Howard and his friends, such as Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jim Jarmusch.
Begun in 1978, Burroughs: The Movie aired on BBC Arena and premiered at the 1983 New York Film Festival. Not only does Uncle Howard shine a light on Howard’s — and Aaron’s — affinity for Burroughs, it also presents Howard Brookner’s expansive archive, including sound tapes and old photos found at his home on 222 Bowery Street, which was a partially converted YMCA called The Bunker. It’s where Burroughs, Howard, and their friends would hang out.
Aaron Brookner recalls the enormous specter of William Burroughs looming over him as he hunkered down to sleep at his grandparents’ home in Miami. “They had a gigantic Burroughs: The Movie marquee poster in the guest room, like part of the family photos on the wall,” he recalls. “I didn’t know who Burroughs was, but it was Howard’s movie.”
As a kid, Aaron got to sit on his uncle’s lap to watch him direct Madonna, Matt Dillon, and Randy Quaid — three of the leads from Brookner’s last movie, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Although he was only seven at the time of his uncle’s death, Aaron describes their relationship as one of kindred spirits. “I was at St. Vincent’s hospital; I was in the AIDS ward. I was with him in the last few months of his life,” he says. “I didn’t know anything about AIDS, or that he was gay, of course. My father’s way of explaining that was taking me to see Philadelphia when I was about twelve. At the end of the movie, I was bawling.”
It’s doubtful that Burroughs: The Movie would have resurfaced if not for Brookner, who tracked down a 16mm copy at the Museum of Modern Art, a gift of his uncle’s long-time partner, the writer Brad Gooch.
Uncle Howard is a testimonial to a talented filmmaker, and a touching exposé about the close relationship between an Uncle and his nephew. Readers interested in learning more about Howard Brookner may want to check out Brad Gooch’s memoir, Smash Cut, which “takes readers through his final months with Brookner, doing so with unflinching honesty and great beauty” (as it states in The G&LR review of Gooch’s memoir from the Nov.-Dec. 2015 Issue).