'Uncle Howard': Sundance Review

Uncle Howard still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A tribute made all the more affecting by its quiet, contemplative approach.

The life and work of Howard Brookner, a rising force in independent filmmaking cut down by AIDS in 1989 at age 34, gets poignant contextualization in this portrait by his nephew.

In Uncle Howard, an intensely personal exhumation project with an emotional undertow that sneaks up and carries you along, director Aaron Brookner goes digging through the outtakes of a 33-year-old non-fiction feature to flesh out the ghost of his childhood hero. The subject is the late filmmaker Howard Brookner, best known for his 1983 doc, Burroughs: The Movie. The result, however, is not just a warm portrait of one man and his small body of work; it's also a moving journey through a largely vanished New York, a gritty place where outsider artists and creative risk-takers came to connect and grow.

In that sense, the movie shares some thematic kinship with the inspiring Patti Smith memoir Just Kids, about the poet rocker's early experiences in the city with Robert Mapplethorpe. The core years being examined here are roughly a decade later, but the snapshot of a self-nourishing Lower East Side arts scene strikes similar notes of fondness.

Looking back from the present day, Aaron Brookner points to the loss of two beacons from the era as symbols of what Manhattan has become: the Chelsea Hotel and St. Vincent's Hospital. The Chelsea still stands but is undergoing a major upgrade, leaving behind its history of "bohemian folly," while St. Vincent's, where Brookner's uncle and thousands of others were treated for AIDS-related illnesses during the crisis years, has been torn down and replaced by luxury condos.

Non-fiction filmmaking in which the documentarian becomes a substantial on-camera presence can often result in the storyteller pulling focus from the subject. One of the most refreshing aspects of Uncle Howard is the younger Brookner's discreet respectfulness. Lovely home-movie footage of him as a kid shows how he gravitated toward his fun, favorite uncle, but his narration throughout retains a reserve that's almost dispassionate. He lets the deep emotional connection surface organically.

The most important key to accessing his subject lies in "The Bunker," as William Burroughs called his Bowery apartment. Just as the older Brookner had to get around the reclusive Burroughs' notorious guardedness to make his film, so does his nephew have to win over John Giorno, the caretaker of the partially converted YMCA space. The dusty archive contained therein is a wealth of material — outtakes, rushes, negative rolls, much of it unlogged — with lots of footage of the handsome 25-year-old Howard talking with Burroughs and other interview subjects between takes.

One associate observes that "you were never on farting terms" with Burroughs, but that Brookner knew how to talk to him, so he got closer than most. (He also shared Burroughs' heroin habit for a time.) Terrific archive material shows Burroughs with contemporaries such as Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol and Lucien Carr, and Aaron Brookner bridges past and present by inviting Tom DiCillo and the eternally droll Jim Jarmusch — both of whom worked on Burroughs: The Movie early in their careers — to reflect back while poring over outtakes.

Footage of other maverick artists of the time — Laurie Anderson, John Cage, Frank Zappa and Patti Smith, among them — enhances the loosely structured film's mosaic of a vibrant creative milieu. Eclectic music choices also help evoke that world. Hearing Rowland S. Howard's lugubriously shivery vocals on "Still Burning," for instance, suggests a punk spirit that reaches across different mediums and multiple generations.

There's a tacit nod to the importance of film preservation in Aaron Brookner's research into his uncle's follow-up project Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. While Giorno's vigilance as a gatekeeper meant the invaluable material from the Burroughs film had been largely untouched, almost everything relating to the Wilson film was destroyed or lost. Still, there are spellbinding glimpses of the avant-garde theater artist's abortive attempt to stage a 12-hour epic opera for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Wilson himself acknowledges that, again, Brookner's ability to gain the trust and respect of his subjects gave him unique access.

Howard Brookner rarely appears to have been without a camera in his hand, and throughout the movie, his nephew threads warm, funny moments from their family life as captured by his uncle, featuring the latter's parents and grandparents.

In more recent interviews, Elaine Brookner admits with wry self-awareness to the classic Jewish mother's disappointment when her son chose to pursue filmmaking instead of law. With a candor that excludes sentimentality, she describes coming to accept Howard's homosexuality, and reveals that being charmed by his boyfriend, the writer Brad Gooch, nudged the process along.

The subject to some degree remains inscrutable, though video diaries from Brookner's final years, after he became HIV-positive, add intimacy and insight, notably in the way his natural levity and warmth appear undiminished. The picture that comes together is of a man who — as he explains in a moving letter to be read by his parents after his death — lived his life exactly as he wanted, with no time for regrets. He seemed to accept his illness with calm forbearance, expressing sorrow only for the people who would mourn him.

The film's sketchiest section deals with Brookner's move into narrative features with Bloodhounds of Broadway, when his health had already begun deteriorating. That 1989 period piece, adapted from Damon Runyon stories, starred Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey and Madonna. It was released shortly after its director's death, no doubt hastened by the pressures of the work and by his decision to discontinue taking AZT in order to be able to focus.

It's understandable that Aaron Brookner chooses not to dwell on the movie's critical and commercial failure, but this part of the film seems rushed. There are poignant observations, however, such as the naive hope that a first-time director might get final cut on a $4 million studio picture. "But what if it's my only film?" asked Howard Brookner. Those words took on new meaning once his condition became known. The challenges of making an ambitious movie while dealing with a debilitating illness didn't prevent him from bringing his 7-year-old nephew onto the set, in what appears to have been a formative experience.

There's a disarming generosity in the filmmaker's approach to Uncle Howard, maintaining considerable privacy about his own feelings while seeming to take great comfort in reawakening the memories of people who loved Howard, including longtime partner Gooch.

The doc's beautiful final sequence rips your heart out. After shooting a New York sunset, Howard twirls around wearing a hoodie and a goofy smile, dancing to The Pretenders' "Hymn to Her" while the fading ghost of Manhattan watches him through grubby loft windows. The words sung by Chrissie Hynde neatly sum up the rewards of this soulful tribute: "Something is lost, but something is found."

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
Production company: Pinball London
Director: Aaron Brookner
Producer: Paula Vaccaro

Executive producer: Jim Jarmusch
Directors of photography: Andre Dobert, Gregg de Domenico

Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Sales: ICM

Not rated, 96 minutes