Review - Uncle Howard
Uncle Howard, a documentary charting the working years of New York director Howard Brookner leading to his death from AIDS in 1989, is a deeply personal project that demands to be seen, directed by his nephew Aaron Brookner.
Uncle Howard is the third film by Aaron Brookner, which has a poetic irony as Howard only made three films himself before his early death at 34, all of which are explored here in affectionate detail.
Aaron was a small child when Howard worked meticulously on his documentary on William S Burroughs, and the connection between Uncle and Nephew was clearly strong; Aaron talks of how he idolised his uncle, then a young, hip director on the New York scene. We find Aaron searching for hallowed footage that did not make the final cut of Burroughs: The movie, released in 1983. Alongside Jim Jarmusch who is executive producer on Uncle Howard, Aaron unearths a treasure trove of unused materials and research which reveals more about the complex and tragic life of Howard. Fascinating footage of Burroughs is included in the film, and home movie images of life on the scene with Andy Warhol show that Howard was mixing with the right company.
Footage of Aaron and Jarmusch searching through Howard’s work in Burrough’s “bunker”, a cool as hell studio space where he created his work is both touching and insightful. Aaron clearly spent many formative hours here with his uncle making this so much more than simply a depot for lost data. Aaron’s uncanny physical resemblance to his Uncle also adds to the significance of this project and his want to follow in his footsteps.
The film also explores Howard’s work on 1987’s Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, a study of the American theatre director and his final movie and the studio drama, Bloodhounds on Broadway, which found him working alongside the likes of Madonna, Matt Dillon and Rutger Hauer. Aaron was allowed access to the set during the shooting of Bloodhounds and this was the spark that decided his fate to carry on the work of his Uncle.
The film is a great treatise on independent filmmaking at a vibrant time in 1980s New York but serves perhaps more as a reminder of the culture of that time and the onslaught of AIDS as a horrific and deadly force. For those of us old enough to remember those first big names to succumb to AIDS, significantly Hollywood legend Rock Hudson, and the vile tabloid gay-bashing that followed, the grim memories may still sit deep within, younger viewers however may find Howard’s story a revelation.
It is unclear what Aaron’s intentions are at times, to tell the story of his Uncle’s short but valued career or to highlight the tragedy of the AIDS generation. In fairness, he succeeds in both.
That Howard was such a young talent and a soul who was clearly loved by family, friends and towards the end the arts and show business world, makes his untimely demise all the more heart-breaking. Few friends can recount tales or read his memoirs without breaking down, and the talking head sequences often make for difficult viewing.
At one point whilst Aaron sits with Howard’s lover Brad Gooch watching footage of Howard at a party, there is a poignant moment when Brad realises how many people in the film had also died from AIDS. This moment along with recounted tales of Howard’s struggle to come out to his anti-gay parents and his friends talking about how he revealed to them that he was HIV positive paint a vivid and dismaying picture of 1980s attitudes. The tragedy that Howard was aware that a treatment was being developed but he would not be around to see that happen. adds further to the tragedy and unfortunately was the fate that befell many a person at that time.
The film is no great achievement in terms of cinematography, but that adds to the purpose here, made up of archive home movie footage, unused film and the usual talking heads, Aaron manages to tell a story from the heart and succeeds in re-igniting a recognition for those HIV sufferers who missed the chance to benefit from the treatment which many now see as a given.
With Howard Brookner on the brink of big time movie making (he died before Bloodhounds on Broadway was premiered), the film begs the question of what would have been next for him. It raises awareness of the cruelty of AIDS and equally how lucky we are that a treatment was created to maintain the survival of future HIV sufferers.