In Uncle Howard, Jim Jarmusch summarizes how the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and ’90s is still affecting us. He laments that Howard Brookner, the subject of this documentary, and an entire generation of artistic minds were wiped off the face of the Earth. Jarmusch wonders what the world would look if they were still alive today. That’s a very powerful thought, one that echoes throughout Aaron Brookner’s film.
Howard Brookner made three films, two of which were critically acclaimed documentaries. Had he not passed away, there is no doubt he would have been a formidable influence in the filmmaking world. In fact, he was already making waves and inspiring those around him before his life was cut short in 1989 at age 34. Now his nephew, who was very young when Howard died, has gone to work to restore those films, and in the process has made this tribute to his uncle’s life.
A New York University film student, Howard made what would become Burroughs: The Movie (1983), the only documentary on William S. Burroughs with the writer’s cooperation. As Aaron goes through stacks of film and photos, we are treated to behind-the-scenes of Burroughs. Jarmusch was Howard’s sound operator and good friend. For five years, Howard, Jarmusch, Burroughs, and his entourage hung out, not exactly behaving professionally all the time. You literally see them passing joints while filming.
Aaron is methodical about revealing the details of his uncle’s life. The film begins with Burroughs, which is such a treat to watch, and then slowly the narrative turns to Howard’s background. First, we learn that he is deceased and then that he was gay. It doesn’t take long for viewers familiar with this terrain to piece together that this is the biography of someone whose life was cut short by AIDS.
Aaron is careful to never let the film dawdle too much in sentimentality. Those brush strokes come in often enough but do not overpower the experience—documenting the life of a remarkable person. To make a weepy story about a man now long gone would have been too easy, and it’s been done before. Instead, Uncle Howard is an inspiration to anyone with a creative passion. Howard Brookner was a determined artist who achieved a lot with the very little time he was given. In the end, Aaron Brookner came up with the best way to pay tribute to his uncle: by giving him back to the world.