A couple of months ago we reviewed Howard Brookner’s acclaimed 1983 documentary, Burroughs: The Movie, and now we have a film about the man who made it. The movie comes from Howard Brookner’s nephew, Aaron, looking at Howard’s life, and how Aaron tracked down his uncle’s archive, hidden away in William Burroughs’ legendary bunker.
Howard first started making his documentary about Burroughs when he was a student, directing the film with future indie film luminaries Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo as his crew. The film helped him get his name on the map, which he followed by another well received documentary in 1987, Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, before he made his fiction debut with Bloodhounds Of Broadway, starring the likes of Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey and Madonna.
He was also a gay man, living his life openly just as a ‘gay plague’ was starting to sweep the world. Brookner became HIV+ and then died of AIDS before Bloodhounds Of Broadway was released.
Uncle Howard is a great little film, part biopic and part act of remembrance. Aaron knows the impact his uncle’s life had on him, which resulted in the fact he grew up to be a filmmaker and he brings that to the documentary. He’s also very aware of what might have happened, and so the documentary retains a sadness, showing a young, dynamic man on his way to great things, whose life was cut far too short.
Many of those who knew Howard are involved, including interviews with Jarmusch, DiCillo, Burroughs’ heir James Grauerholz, one of Howard’s boyfriends and various members of his family. That’s complemented by all sorts of footage from Howard’s archive, showing him at work, and underlining what a young, vivacious figure he was. It’s difficult not to feel that if things had turned out differently, this documentary could have been about the early days of one of the most important directors of the last 35 years. Instead it is a very fitting, interesting and worthwhile eulogy and celebration of a life.
It’s also good that it fully engages with his sexuality, not trying to sideline it, or suggest it was irrelevant to who he was and the life he lived. That includes engaging with those he loved and what his family thought about him begin gay, as well as the impact of the AIDS crisis, not least that he may have shortened his own life by avoiding medications while making Bloodhounds Of Broadway, knowing it was likely to be the only fiction film he ever made.
It is a shame that it’s the sort of documentary that’s unlikely to get a particularly big audience, simply because not all that many people know who Howard Brookner was or why they should care. They should though, as while Howard was on a path few others shared, he is testament to the thousands of others that AIDS took from us, and what we lost when so many young, vibrant people died.
Overall Verdict: Howard Brookner may be a relatively little known figure, but his nephew, Aaron, has made a more than fitting tribute to his uncle.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac