‘Uncle Howard’ Remembers NYC Filmmaker Howard Brookner

Posted on: November 19th, 2014 at 9:22 am by
Howard Brookner on the Bowery in 1978/Photo by Doris Licht

Howard Brookner on the Bowery in 1978/Photo by Doris Licht

Howard Brookner’s heart and pulse was rooted in the chaotic, vibrant grid that is New York City. The filmmaker/director was a fixture on the Bowery. He called the Chelsea Hotel home.

He’s regarded for his 1983 documentary on beat generation icon William S. Burrroughs, Burroughs: The Movie. The native New Yorker’s rich look at avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson’s efforts in creating a 12-hour, multi-national opera coinciding the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles followed in 1987’s Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. Two years later, an all-star cast including Madonna, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey, among others, hit the silver screen for Howard’s Bloodhounds of Broadway. Sadly, such a promising young talent would soon leave the scene, as Howard was just 34 years old when he passed away from AIDS in 1989.

His nephew, Aaron, was just seven when he died. He thought the world of his uncle and was mesmerized by his work, and couldn’t get enough of his infectious spirit.

“For a chameleon like Howard, he probably loved the diversity contained within one island,” Aaron said. “He went to Friday night Shabbat dinners in the Bronx with my great-grandparents, ushered at the Met opera at Lincoln Center, and lived in distressed Bohemia at the Chelsea Hotel. He was part of the punk rock junkiedom on the Lower East side, and he rented out undesirable apartments for a mob friend in Little Italy to film school peers. And he was known all over the Avant Garde theater and fine art scene in SoHo and Tribeca. He was also a totally cool, loving uncle taking me to buy strange sunglasses from vendors on lower Broadway.”

Aaron Brookner/Photo by Ryan Muir

Aaron Brookner/Photo by Ryan Muir

Aaron has followed in his uncle’s footsteps into film, getting his start as a production assistant on Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes, and Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity: Three Portraits. His own documentary, 2004’s The Black Cowboys, earned the audience award prize at Rochester International Short Film Festival. And his first feature film, 2012’s The Silver Goat, was a digital smash; exclusively created as the first feature for the iPad, it was downloaded as an app in 24 countries.

With his uncle never far from his thoughts, Aaron brought a restored version of Burroughs: The Movie to life through incredible Kickstarter support in December 2012. It was shown during the New York Film Festival in October, with Aaron and several of Howard’s colleagues such as Jim Jarmusch (who was in charge of sound on the film), Tom DiCillo (who manned the camera) and James Grauerholz (Burroughs’ assistant) on hand to discuss the film.

Aaron’s current labor of love is Uncle Howard, a feature doc with Pinball London that explores his uncle’s life as well delves into his archive of work, some of which was thought to be lost. Such footage featuring the likes of Burroughs, Andy Warhol, and Howard in the Chelsea Hotel, plus Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and Frank Zappa was recovered from William Burroughs’ Bowery apartment (a.k.a. “The Bunker”) last year.

Jarmusch (Permanent Vacation, Mystery Train, The Limits of Control) is the executive producer of Uncle Howard, which is tentatively slated for a 2016 release. He, DiCillo and Howard went to NYU together.

“Before I knew of Jim’s friendship with my uncle, and we became friends, I was a huge fan of his films. And I still am,” Aaron revealed. “It’s a great honor to have him involved with this project, and Jim’s intuition is incredible and he uses it in all things and across all stages of filmmaking. He is probably the most tuned-in person I’ve ever met.”

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One underlying message Aaron is trying to get across in Uncle Howard is one of real heart and ambition. “Time is all we have,” he said. “Burroughs called it a resource. It’s that which ends. Howard lived his life with this belief. He was 34 when he died. Yes, he was cheated out of many good years, but he really got his money’s worth. How many of us could die at 34 and know we had accomplished our dreams and done with our time exactly what we’d wanted to? Howard and Burroughs and this story inspire along these lines. I’ll feel I did a good job if people take away this inspiration from watching the film.”

Aaron has many fond memories of his late uncle, but there are a few that truly stand out for him, one being when Howard brought him to the Bloodhounds of Broadway set when he was just six-years-old. The pair had lunch, and afterward, an important scene with Madonna and Randy Quaid was set to take place.

“He sat me on his lap while he directed the scene,” Aaron recalled. “I’ve made one fiction film so far, tiny in budget with no movie stars, and it was very intense to keep on schedule and not cave to pressure. So I can only imagine it was that times a million for him making his first narrative film, with a Hollywood studio looking over his shoulder ready to close him down if he went over schedule or budget, with the biggest female pop star on the planet. And still, he cared about sharing the experience with me. He was calm, tranquil, loving, and as a result that’s how my memory exists.”

For more on Uncle Howard, visit its official Facebook and Twitter.

A U.S. theatrical premiere run of “Burroughs: The Movie” in new restoration is currently showing at the Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Ave.) until November 19. Jim Jarmusch was on hand for the 7pm slot last night. Burroughs’ pal and author Stewart Meyer will be there during the 7 and 9:15pm screenings on final evening.

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