In 1978, a New York University film student named Howard Brookner was allowed unprecedented access to Naked Lunch author William S Burroughs. With a small crew (including a young Jim Jarmusch working as the sound recordist), Brookner captured hundreds of hours of footage and created the one and only documentary about the author. Released in 1983, Burroughs: The Movie was a hit with critics and audiences alike. In 1987, Brookner released Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, another doc, which focused on the fringe theater director’s attempt and failure to mount a 12-hour opera during the 1984 summer Olympics. Civil Wars was also received with much ballyhoo, and it seemed a long and fruitful film career was practically guaranteed for Brookner. Tragically, however, he would die of AIDS in 1989 while in post-production for Bloodhounds of Broadway, a film that was to be his fist major cinematic effort.
In Uncle Howard, Brookner’s nephew Aaron undertakes a journey to discover more about his uncle; a gay man living during a cultural renaissance in 1980s New York City, a naturally talented filmmaker who seemed to posses a preternatural brilliance behind the camera and a warm and loving family member struggling with homophobia, drug abuse and the stressors of a career in film.
All the pieces are there for Uncle Howard to knock it out of the park—Brookner was working with the likes of Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo before they became indie film legends, and was rubbing shoulders with up-and-comers like John Waters and Sara Driver—but even chronicling the discovery of the footage inside Burroughs’ famed apartment, known as The Bunker, can’t save the winding, unfocused nature of the younger Brookner’s film. The vast majority of Uncle Howard’s early bits are eaten up with the aforementioned Burroughs footage, and though it’s at least interesting to catch a glimpse of The Bunker as it exists today (almost nothing has changed), Aaron Brookner does little to tell us about the so-called subject of the film.
It almost seems like a newcomer with big aspirations name-dropping his uncle’s now-famous pals as if this somehow lends him cinematic credibility, but by the time the film starts to scratch the surface of the AIDS epidemic, the familial and homophobic struggles facing his uncle or even the tragedy of his death, there’s very little time left. Interviews with family members or those who were there working alongside the senior Brookner lack pertinence outside of illustrating how Howard was a really great guy and a talented director. Any actual weight that could have been utilized to explore his demons, his drug abuse or even how the pressures of filmmaking fed these things are either swept under the rug or not examined with any real emphasis. A longtime lover of Howard’s does come close to giving us a clearer idea of what the man was actually like, but the junior Brookner never provides the right information to help us understand why Uncle Howard was worth making.
Film buffs, art aficionados and lit fans will probably get a kick out of seeing the footage of Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and others, but this is not easily digestible fare for cinema novices or everyday people looking for an interesting documentary—this one’s for a certain subset of the culturally inclined, many of whom probably already have the bulk of this knowledge.
Directed by Aaron Brookner
Jean Cocteau Cinema,