Aaron Brookner’s “Uncle Howard” pays fond tribute to his hero-worshipped relative, Howard Brookner, who packed considerable professional activity into a decade’s indie filmmaking before dying of AIDS in 1989 at age 34. As the subject was fascinated by (and part of) his era’s Manhattan art scenes, the documentary boasts plentiful footage of late and still-living luminaries from William Burroughs to Madonna. Nevertheless, this is no starry-eyed, heart-on-sleeve flashback but a low-key, respectful one, no less appealing for its relative reserve. Beyond further festival travel, the Sundance premiere could attract minor theatrical exposure while getting wider play from artscasters and niche home-format sales.
Spending very little time on his subject’s earlier years — which were before the younger filmmaker’s time — Brookner jumps right into his own latter-day efforts to retrieve an archive of materials that have sat untouched in Burroughs’ onetime Manhattan studio “The Bunker” for over three decades. Once he stops being stonewalled by their current caretaker, poet John Giorno, Brookner has access to a treasure trove of outtakes and errata from Howard’s first feature, “Burroughs: The Movie” (1983) — some of which he watches now with Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo, who worked on that project before their own directorial careers took off.
A handsome, erudite gay man who wrote his university thesis on the famed Beat author, Howard Brookner won the trust of often reclusive, paranoid Burroughs. He even shared the latter’s heroin habit for a time, although one doesn’t get a sense that became an ongoing issue. That unimposing charm likewise won him access to initially reluctant Robert Wilson, the theatrical avant-gardist whom he profiled in a second documentary feature (1987’s “Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars,” chronicling an epic stage spectacle’s thwarted path) that is covered more briefly here.
Howard already knew he was HIV-positive by the time he began making “Bloodhounds of Broadway.” That ambitious first narrative feature was a Damon Runyun-based Roaring ’20s ensemble piece featuring Matt Dillon, Madonna, Jennifer Grey, Rutger Hauer, Randy Quaid and numerous others. The exhausting effort it demanded doubtless hastened his death from AIDS-related causes just a couple weeks before its Cannes premiere. (Pic doesn’t note that while Brookner’s two documentaries were acclaimed, “Bloodhounds” was recut by the studio, then poorly received by both critics and audiences.)
Brookner’s welcome into the orbit of Burroughs and other like-minded artists result in archival glimpses here of Patti Smith, Allen Ginsburg, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, John Cage and many more. His personal life is less well explored, despite interviews with surviving relatives, colleagues and his long-term boyfriend, author Brad Gooch. Even in video-diary excerpts toward the end of his life, he is calm and composed rather than revealing. A different, more effusive side is revealed in family photos and home movies, where it’s clear why Aaron adored him (beyond providing a creative role model): He was clearly a wonderfully fun and affectionate uncle. His nephew appears to have inherited some temperamental as well as physical resemblance; Aaron’s narration is often touching, but shares a slightly formal, histrionics-resistant air.
Assembly is assured, with archival materials in excellent condition (the director has been working on restoring and re-releasing Howard’s works) in excellent condition.