East End Film Festival: Uncle Howard

Directed by Aaron Brookner
EEFF Screening: July 3rd, 3:45pm

by Lewis Church

This documentary is directed by Aaron Brookner and focuses on his uncle, Howard Brookner, who in turn directed the documentaries Burroughs: The Movie (1983), Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars (1987) and gangster musical Bloodhounds of Broadway (1989) before his tragically young death due to AIDS-related illness. Accessing his uncle’s archive (despite the efforts of a crotchety Jon Giorno), the junior Brookner has crafted a film that is tender, detailed and beautifully structured. Howard was a part of the same bohemian independent film circuit that included Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Sara Driver and others, and the films that he completed in his short life share much with those filmmakers in aesthetic and tone, irreverent and fantastical on a shoestring budget, quixotic in their ambition.

If you’ve seen Burroughs: The Movie, and you should have, then it is worth seeing Uncle Howard for the behind-the-scenes footage from that film alone. An eerie scene of Burroughs’ ‘bunker’ today, what remains of the writer’s infamous apartment, set against footage of Warhol, Ginsberg and others sitting on the same chairs almost 40 years ago is prickled with the weight of time. Aficionados of the New York punk scene should definitely track Uncle Howard down, the shots of the Lower East Side and the feel of the conversations that took place in the cold lofts amongst these artistic outlaws both present throughout the film and so obviously lost to the current gentrification of New York.

Of course, the film is much more than a re-hash of the work of Howard, as it also traces Aaron’s attempts to understand more of his few memories of his uncle, and pursue who Howard was through talking to his friends and lovers. Aaron is unavoidably a less interesting presence than the now-gone Howard, and whilst at a few moments there might be the sense that the film is too much about his journey than its subject’s, I’m inclined to forgive that. Through talking to extended family, and mining the ineptly filmed home movies like the ones all of our parents probably have in a draw somewhere, the film builds a portrait of the two directors and their limited interaction across a generational divide. This is a film that yearns for its subject, grasping at a talent and romantic identity that, to his credit, Aaron seems aware he will never quite achieve.

The documentary’s conclusion follows the production of Howard’s last film Bloodhounds of Broadway (starring Madonna and Randy Quaid!), and skilfully mines video diaries to portray the terrible weight of the AIDS crisis on friends and associates, and the resolution of those staring it in the face. The final shot of the film (drawn from Howard’s own footage) might in another context be pretentious or goofy, but it takes on a power because we know the sad final outcome. As the sun sets on screen, I was left feeling that the elder Brookner is an unappreciated figure that deserves to be known, and that he’d be proud of the documentary his nephew has produced.



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