J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Sundance ’16: Uncle Howard

Howard Brookner only completed three films, but he was no one-hit-wonder. Nor did he suffer a sophomore slump. Aaron Brookner pays tribute to the director of the classic cinematic profile Burroughs: The Movie with his own documentary, Uncle Howard (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Howard Brookner was always a natural playing the role of favorite uncle. Even though he was not always around, he developed a special relationship with his future filmmaking nephew. Clearly, Aaron Brookner will use his film to celebrate “Uncle Howard,” but it also becomes part of a bigger effort to preserve Howard Brookner’s work. Although previously considered lost, Brookner discovers his uncle’s outtakes from Burroughs, as well as the rest of his archives were stashed away in “The Bunker,” Burroughs’ in/famous subterranean Bowery apartment.

When Brookner finally gains access, along with his uncle’s old technical collaborator Jim Jarmusch, they discover (and duly incorporate into the film) sequences that reflect the extent to which the Burroughs circle embraced the elder Brookner as one of their own, all of which is confirmed by the emotional remembrances of James Grauerholz, Burroughs’ editor, caretaker, and literary executor.

Obviously, there is an awful lot of Burroughs in Brookner’s film, because that is what ninety-nine percent of the audience for Uncle Howard will be primarily interested in. Still, Aaron Brookner spends a good deal of time on his uncle’s under-screened second film Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, nor does he ignore Brookner’s Hollywood debut, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Wilson, the theater director, also offers some affectionate memories of Brookner, but apparently Randy Quaid was not available to wax nostalgic over Bloodhounds.

Uncle Howard is an unflaggingly nice film. Frankly, it is probably more sentimental than its subject and Burroughs might otherwise prefer. However, it really offers us a full sense of the postmodern-Beatnik world they inhabited. If it does not open before October, it is a cinch to get programmed at this year’s New York Film Festival, which screened Burroughs: the Movie when it was new and again as a restored retro selection in 2014. Having festivals favorites Jarmusch and Sara Driver on-board as executive producer and co-producer, respectively, looks like a further guarantee—and why not? The film is highly watchable, even if you are not a Burroughs fanatic.

Uncle Howard is an inescapably personal film, but Aaron Brookner maintains a healthy balance of family business and specialized cultural history. Consequently, it just plays considerably better than you would expect. Recommended for fans of Burroughs and the vintage 1980s downtown scene, Uncle Howard screens again today (1/29) and tomorrow (1/30) in Park City, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

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