“Because of Howard, I wanted to make movies.” These are the words of filmmaker Aaron Brookner, whose non-fiction debut is, fittingly, a testament to his uncle. Howard Brookner was a lauded New York director, who made two docs and a Hollywood feature before succumbing to AIDS three days before his 35th birthday. As Aaron searches through Howard’s archive – full of home movies, diary entries, and photographs – he becomes re-immersed in a mostly forgotten but momentous cultural era. Meeting with his uncle’s old friends and collaborators, such as Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver, Aaron learns more about a charming, gregarious, brilliant artist.
Uncle Howard is a moving and generous tribute to an under-recognized filmmaker. Meanwhile, it also boasts a devastating power, as it witnesses a generation of luminaries whose contributions to culture have faded or been mostly erased from the record. In the doc’s second half, which focuses on Howard’s battles with AIDS, Aaron shows us a trove of footage that is sometimes painful to watch. (This includes a home movie of a birthday party, where many of the invited would be dead soon after, as well as video diaries of Howard commenting on his fatigue and frustration.) Yet, the indelible subject of this film has an optimism and sweetness that is contagious, impacting the doc’s lively tone.
Aaron’s film is a bit unfocused in the first half, which spends too much time looking at the relationship between Howard and William S. Burroughs (when the former made a biography about the latter). Meanwhile, although one comes to see some of the personal influence Howard has on his nephew’s creative journey, there is more material to mine here about their relationship. Despite these minor complaints, this intimate document of a man, his work, and his love of the cinema will be hard for many to forget.