Howard Brookner could have been a contender. In the 80s he was a critically acclaimed indie director working in New York, collaborating with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo on projects that starred, amongst others, Matt Dillon, Madonna and Tilda Swinton. But tragically, Brookner died of AIDS when he was just 34, and memory of his slender oeuvre faded before anyone even had the chance to truly acknowledge its legacy.
This drifting documentary, made with quiet tenderness by Brookner’s nephew Aaron, chronicles Howard’s life, both professional and personal. Utilising a wealthy archive of material, left ignored for years in the Bowery district bunker flat of Beat generation novelist William S. Burroughs, the director delves into a legacy rich in art and adventure; following Brookner through the laborious 5 years it took to make Burroughs: The Movie; detailing his fight for final cut of his third feature Bloodhounds of Broadway, and also recognising the pain of his struggle to be accepted as a homosexual.
“You see what he meant to me,” says one of Howard’s many friends, giving testimonial whilst discussing those tragic final months. And indeed, if there’s one thing that’s well defined in Uncle Howard, it’s the intimacy he shared with those he loved. Kim Massee poignantly reflects on an affair the pair once shared, while Jim Jarmusch enthusiastically regards Brookner’s remarkable talents behind the camera.Though we can see what Howard meant to so many, there’s not enough focus given to understanding the subject himself. Aaron Brookner is obviously in awe of his uncle’s story, but seems more interested in memorialising him, even going so far as to adopt the same artistic style. Much of the behind the scenes footage found in the cache of material mined for the movie observes the filmmaker at work, proving him to be the passionate auteur affirmed in tribute. However, there’s little time afforded to the recordings of him off of set – the longest private period we spend with Howard is an extended sequence shot in a New York apartment, which plays over the end credits – shrouding the picture with an air of elusiveness.
When Burroughs: The Movie first premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1983, Janet Maslin of the New York Times wrote that Howard demonstrated “an unusual degree of liveliness and curiosity in exploring his subject”. If Aaron had been driven by a similar sense of inquisitiveness, Uncle Howard may have been more than the loving if limited lament that it is.