Uncle Howard

 

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A nephew pays tribute to the film career of his much admired uncle.

 
Uncle Howard

Aaron Brookner with Jim Jarmusch

 

Howard Brookner was a New York filmmaker whose career was cut short in 1989 when, like so many gay men of his generation, he died of Aids. Aaron Brookner, whose film this is, was, as the title indicates, his nephew and Uncle Howard is both a portrait of an age - the New York Underground scene of the 1980s - and a tribute to a man whose work was in danger of being forgotten.

 

Setting out with rather too much hand-held camera work (it is as though Aaron wants to follow in Howard's footsteps by not adopting too traditional a style of filming), Uncle Howard soon shows enquiries that lead the filmmaker to the recovery of an archive of its subject's work. What we then learn is that Howard Brookner made two documentaries shooting both over a very long period: Burroughs, a detailed view of the author William S. Burroughs and Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars featuring the theatre director. Jim Jarmusch, a major presence here and also an executive producer, worked on the sound recording for Burroughs and Tom DiCillo did the photography. Later, Howard would make a Hollywood feature which he co-wrote, Bloodhounds of Broadway starring Matt Dillon and Madonna, but by then he had already been diagnosed with the illness that would kill him before the film opened.

 

If the Wilson piece virtually disappeared (Aaron manages to trace a print in Germany), Burroughs was, we are told, acclaimed but went out of circulation on Howard's death. Why that happened we never learn nor do we get much indication of how personal or how commercial the Hollywood movie was. For that matter the mix of out-takes, on set footage and brief scenes from the films themselves hardly suggest that Howard Brookner was a great talent. Consequently, while Uncle Howard is a useful memorial to a period of artistic endeavour among bohemian artists, it fails to convince when it seeks to make a case for Howard as a great filmmaker although it is clear that after all these years he is still fondly remembered (he achieved a close bond with both Burroughs and Wilson).

 

Furthermore, this being such a personal movie, Aaron is reluctant let go and the final scenes are too long and feel spun out. On the personal level Uncle Howard works best as a portrait of gay man and of his situation in coming out to his parents and ultimately it is a very moving letter that he wrote to them as death was approaching that provides the film's most effective sequence by far.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Aaron Brookner, Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Robert Wilson, James Grauerholz.

 

Dir Aaron Brookner, Pro Paula Vaccaro, Ph André Döbert and Gregg de Domenico, Ed Masahiro Hirakubo.

 
Pinball London/Creative Europe/Jerome Foundation/Bertha Foundation/IFP-Contemporary Films.
97 mins. UK/USA/Mexico. 2016. Rel: 16 December 2016. Cert. 15.