The Final Years of Howard Brookner in the Documentary

Often, when creating a non-fiction film of this nature, if the person making the documentary makes substantial appearances on camera it usually results in the storyteller straying away from the topic. What is so refreshing about this 2016 documentary is how Aaron Brookner discreetly remains respectful of his uncle. Beautiful footage of Aaron as a kid narrates how he became inspired by his favorite, fun uncle, but Aaron’s narration throughout the documentary maintains a reserve that seems almost dispassionate. Aaron lets the rich emotional link come to light in a natural way. The subject of Howard’s homosexuality remain inscrutable to some extent through video clips from Howard’s last years after he contracted AIDS, add insight and intimacy, especially in the manner in which his warmth and natural levity are undiminished. The image of Howard Brookner that comes together is of a person who as he wrote in an emotional letter to be read by his parents after his passing–lived his life without regrets and just as he wanted to. It appears Howard accepted his sickness with significant calm and was only sorrowful about those that would mourn him.

Aaron Brookner is disarmingly generous in his approach to the documentary and maintains substantial privacy regarding his own sentiments while seemingly deriving comfort in bringing back to life fond memories of those that loved Howard, including his lover Gooch. The documentary’s ending rips out your heart. After enjoying a New York sunset, uncle Howard wearing a goofy smile and a hoodie twirls around dancing to Hymn to her as Manhattan’s fading ghost watches him from grubby loft windows. Chrissie Hynde’s lyrics, “something is lost, but something is found”, neatly summarizes this soulful and rewarding documentary.

In a nutshell, Uncle Howard is the story of Howard Brookner–the man, as well as the artist–as experienced by Howard, his nephew, and those around him. In the documentary, is the careful narration of Howard Brookner’s life with a focus on his final years. Throughout the eighties, Howard Brookner was a significant player in the downtown New York scene. He was a gay individual from the affluent parts of New York City, attended NYU, writing his thesis on William Burroughs before tracking Burroughs down in his urban apartment. After tracking Burroughs down, he convinced him to participate in a film that would instantly become popular. Howard subsequently gained access to the famous Robert Wilson and went on to shoot another successful documentary on that very distinctive enigma. Howard Brookner passed away shortly after finishing the film Bloodhounds of Broadway in 1989. After watching the 2016 documentary, one can’t help but wonder if Howard Brookner would have had a successful career like Jim Jarmusch, had he not died. Even more successful perhaps? The documentary film, Uncle Howard is a modest film about Howard Brookner, about New York’s lost generation of gay people, and a certain time in New York City itself.…

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More of Howard Brookner’s Personal Life

The personal story of Aaron Brookner is narrated with great subtlety. Howard Brookner’s mother is surprisingly honest about how shocked she and her family were when they came to the realization that Howard was gay. Brad Gooch, who was Howard’s lover provides a first-person account of the suffering Howard went through when he was sick with Aids. There is some celebration as well. Jim Jarmush, who worked with Howard on the 1983 film Burroughs is on hand to recap on the days when one could not step back in the East Village without standing on John Cage, Patti Smith, or Laurie Anderson. All these characters appear in the documentary that, though exploring a period not so far behind, seems a bit like from a different millennium.
The archival film presented by Howard’s nephew, who bears a close resemblance to him, depicts Howard Brookner as a charismatic, vibrant presence; a hardworking person with a strong and sometimes careless, pleasure-seeking tendency. One of Howard’s friends reminisces about their shared heroin addiction. Accounts of creating Bloodhounds of Broadway, Robert Wilson, and The Civil War, and the Burroughs are small studies in dedication. Howard’s first two films were documentaries, and he was serious enough about the characters in the documentaries that he spent years with them trying to understand them. He started the 1983 documentary Burroughs about William Burroughs while he was still a film student at NYU. It was during this time that two of his fellow students who would later go on to become filmmakers Tom DiCillo and Jim Jarmush worked alongside Howard Brookner on the project. Howard started working on Bloodhounds when he had contracted AIDS, a disease he frequently muses on in videos from his diary. According to Brad Gooch, Howard Brookner had a difficult time with taking AIDS medication. Whenever he took AZT, his thinking wasn’t clear and he wasn’t productive in such a state so he decided to suspend his medication when he was making the film.

In the documentary, Aaron Brookner speaks fondly about his childhood memories with his uncle, and how it became an inspiration to follow in his uncle’s footsteps as a filmmaker. Although the documentary has flashing glimpses of New York Stars of the 1980s such as Laurie Anderson, Madonna, and Patti Smith, it is more of a dual depiction of two linked artists, one just beginning his journey, and the other gone too soon, than it is a nostalgic evocation.

The documentary seems to share some thematic aspects of the inspiring memoir Just Kids by Patti Smith, which is about the early experiences of the poet with Robert Mapplethorpe in the city. Although the main years being explored in the set appear about ten years later, the image of a creative Lower East Side arts scene evokes similar emotions of fondness. Aaron Brookner, reminiscing of the past from the present day, points to the loss of St. Vincent Hospital and the Chelsea Hotel as signs of what Manhattan has developed into. Although Chelsea still stands, its reputation of bohemian folly is long behind. St. Vincent on the other hand, which is where Howard Brookner and countless others received treatment for AIDS-related illnesses, has since been brought down to pave way for luxury condos.…

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Uncle Howard Documentary – A Very Promising Life of Howard Brookner

Uncle Howard, is a heartfelt documentary by Aaron Brookner about his uncle, Howard Brookner, who was a filmmaker. The documentary is a personal odyssey combining modern-day New York with snapshots of the city in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Howard Brookner, the man who the film is about, was a filmmaker with a very promising career whose life was cut short by Aids in 1989. He was one of the promising talents of the creative subculture of his era alongside people such as John Giorno and Jim Jarmusch. Howard Brookner had shown promise early on in his career, following his first film on William Burroughs. The documentary distinguished Howard as a creative voice and talent. Howard Brookner’s 3rd and final film, Bloodhounds of Broadway, featuring Madonna and partially bankrolled by IMC Credit Services, was an example of what the filmmaker was capable of before he died at 35. At the time of Howard Brookner’s demise, Aaron Brookner was only seven years old.

The 2016 documentary is driven by Aaron Brookner’s mission to gain an understanding of his uncle as a man. The documentary begins as one thing and then develops into something else. It explores the tragedy of a life cut short while providing an elegy of a New York that is no more. The documentary then develops to the sad story about Howard Brookner, the man who came out of the celebrity shadow of Burrough and went on to create successful films such as Bloodhounds of Broadway featuring Matt Dillon and Madonna before his untimely demise. The archive footage is something to cherish. The documentary has a certain emotional ring to it. Melancholy is persistent throughout Aaron Brookner’s narration of his uncle’s life, initially focusing on the attention-grabbing and unique 1983 film on William Burroughs. Howard Brookner made the 1983 film with the help of Tom DiCillo, and Jim Jarmusch.

The documentary Uncle Howard starts with a scene that displays Aaron Brookner as someone on a quest. Shot in a shaky camera, Aaron follows John Giorno into his house, hot on a trail of the cache of movies made by Howard Brookner. Aaron Brookner tries to convince John Giorno, who is entrusted with guarding Burroughs archive, to disclose the documents stored in a bunker near the Bowery. Eventually, there is some movement and memorializing kicks off.

The documentary is in some ways a dual narrative. On the one hand, it is about Howard Brookner’s personal and artistic life. On the other hand, it is a story of Aaron’s discovery of his uncle’s life. Almost eighty years old, the still energetic John Giorno, who was the inheritor of Burrough’s Bowery house is crotchety and a little bemused. Jim Jarmusch, who is an executive producer in this documentary, Tom DiCillo, and Brad Gooch (author of Smash Cut), are delighted by the opportunity to remember Howard Brookner.…

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