A lost New York rescued from the bunker of William Burroughs
Aaron Brookner’s film Uncle Howard is about his late film-maker uncle – but it is also about Aids, a disappeared New York and the dangerous Burroughs
William Burroughs in a still from the film Burroughs
Paddy Breathnach’s film Viva, also showing at Gaze
Aaron Brookner and Jim Jarmusch
William Burroughs with Allen Ginsberg in the film Burroughs
William Burroughs and Howard Brookner in the film Uncle Howard
‘The biggest challenge with this film, even in pitching it, was that it was about so many things,” Aaron Brookner says of his documentary Uncle Howard, which plays at the upcoming Gaze festival in Dublin. “I told them: it’s about my uncle; it’s about William Burroughs; it’s about New York in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s about Aids. They said: whoa, this sounds like a book. It was about finding that narrative line.”
Aaron did some streamlining, but Uncle Howard – at its core, a study of the late film-maker Howard Brookner – is still about all those things. The project began when Aaron, a 34-year-old Vassar graduate from New York, set out to unearth lost footage of his Uncle Howard’s 1983 film on the terrifying, puzzling writer William S Burroughs. After some urging, he eventually persuaded John Giorno, the keeper of Burroughs’s archive, to open up “the bunker” in the East Village where the material was kept. It is as if we’re entering a time machine. The years of gentrification have not affected this darkened, near-windowless chamber.
“John was a protector of the bunker for 30 years. He didn’t throw away stuff,” he says. “The bunker is on the Bowery, across from the new Museum of Contemporary Art. It’s hot real estate and he has kept this thing as a shrine.”
Aaron’s work restoring Howard’s film rekindled warm memories of his late relative. He was just eight when the older man died of Aids in 1989, but Aaron recalled staring through the view-finder of Howard’s camera. “It’s a funny thing,” he says. “The process of taking a picture concentrates the mind. You get the image in your head that bit clearer. It freezes the image. I can still see him very clearly.”
Aaron, already an accomplished film-maker, didn’t need to be reminded of Howard’s fascinating career, but working on restoration of the Burroughs film prompted him to dig deeper. He contacted Jim Jarmusch – who gained chops working as a soundman on Burroughs – and that great film-maker came on board as an executive producer and articulate contributor.
A bright but brief career
Howard burned briefly and brightly. After Burroughs was released to great acclaim, he worked on a documentary concerning the avant-garde theatre maker Robert Wilson. The 1980s ended with him directing Madonna, Matt Dillon and Randy Quaid in a Damon Runyon adaptation called Bloodhounds of Broadway. He was already gravely ill.
“He had been developing a project with David Bowie, ” Aaron says. “Madonna wanted him to direct Truth or Dare. One of the great ironies was that, at the end, he had a tower full of scripts sent to him by Matt Dillon and all the young stars. He couldn’t read them because he was blind by that stage.”
As well as being a celebration of a late artist and relative, Uncle Howard is very much a lament for a lost New York. Poignant footage catches Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson, Allen Ginsberg and other rogue geniuses at work downtown. It’s all sushi and condos now.
“That’s all gone for good in the sense of the physicality of it,” Aaron muses. “People lived close to one another. They had sharing of ideas that crossed generational and sexual lines. They crossed lines that involved drug use. They all fed off one another. It was tactile. Film was on film. Now, in the internet age, everything is very large and very scattered.”
The standard myth is that politics and economics annihilated bohemian life in Manhattan. Once it became properly desirable to live in the downtown quarters, the poets were forced to go somewhere else and the city became defanged. Those areas are cleaner and safer now. They are also a great deal less interesting.
“There was a big explosion in the late 1970s and early 1980s in gay life,” he says. “Then it all changed again: a right-wing reaction against homosexuality. There was a disease that caused everyone in religious middle America to freak out. People realised: ‘Oh there’s people dropping dead and leaving all this real estate, and it looks nice because artists had been living there.’ ”
The wonder of Uncle Howard is that it tells these larger stories while sticking closely to the professional biography of Howard Brookner. His smart, acerbic mother – Aaron’s grandmother – is a constant presence throughout the film. She explains honestly how devastated she and her husband were when they heard Howard was gay. There is still a great sadness in her voice.
“She is certainly no longer sad about his gayness,” Aaron clarifies. “It’s the Aids. There is no judgment. This disease took her son from her. She watched her son lose his speech, to go blind. She is reminded of that every day. She did a major turn and became a huge supporter of Howard. When I was a kid, she was there in the hospital being Jewish grandmother to everyone.”
Aaron’s film argues that Aids altered New York’s artistic voice in ways we will never fully understand. We know that we lost Robert Mapplethorpe and Keith Haring. What other geniuses were yet to be discovered?
Jim Jarmusch is also of that generation. He speaks movingly about Howard in the film and can be seen in out-takes from Burroughs.
“He came on board very early,” Aaron says. “I met Jim when I was 20 and I got my first film job helping out on his Coffee and Cigarettes. I have known him a long time. Howard was very important to him. At the wrap party for Coffee and Cigarettes we were talking about the possibility of outtakes from Burroughs. He was always there. He is an intuitive and intelligent person to have around.”
But where is Madonna? Aaron must have tried to get the star of Bloodhounds of Broadway? “We did, but she was just starting her tour. She sent us a very nice note.”
It doesn’t matter. But it might have been nice to meet Madonna.
“It would. But I met her on set when I was seven.”
A story worth dining on in itself.
- Aaron Brookner’s Uncle Howard and Howard Brookner’s Burroughs are both showing at Gaze, Dublin’s international LGBT film festival, which runs July 28th to August 1st at the Light House Cinema
GAZE 2016: TEN FILMS TO CATCH
Strike a Pose
Study of the dancers who worked on Madonna’s Blond Ambition tour. Bam, bam! July 28th, 8pm
Highly acclaimed Israeli film about the trials of coming of age in a tense environment. July 29th, 6.30pm
Paddy Breathnach’s joyous study of life among Havana’s drag queens has already kicked up noise across the world. July 29th, 8.30pm
Screening of Alan Gilsenan’s The Ghost of Roger Casement and a discussion of that LGBT rebel’s position in history. July 30th, 2.30pm
Aaron Brookner’s cracking documentary about his late film-maker uncle Howard Brookner. July 30th, 6.30pm
Documentary about New York’s Kiki scene: a celebration of laughter and fellowship. July 30th, 8.30pm
Madonna: Truth or Dare
How neat: Howard Brookner was once pencilled in to shoot this frank Madonna documentary. July 30th, 10.30pm
Oh we love these. We can tell you that it’s only 66 minutes long. So if you don’t like it you won’t be long delayed. July 31st, 4.30pm
Southwest of Salem
Searing documentary about four Latina women wrongly arrested for rape in Texas. July 31st, 8.30pm
Young Man with a Horn
Interesting decision to screen Michael Curtiz’s film about a sexually confused jazz trumpeter – inspired by Bix Beiderbecke. August 1st, 1.30pm