“Uncle Howard:” Offers a Touching Cinematic Tribute

Written by | Entertainment, HIV, Screen

Howard Brookner, William Burroughs

A young filmmaker creates a cinematic elegy for the hero he lost to the epidemic.

To the world, Howard Brookner was a rising Hollywood director who died of AIDS on the cusp of his 35th birthday in 1989. To his nephew Aaron, he was the loving and inspirational Uncle Howard.

“He gave me the same thing he gave everyone: when he was with you, he was really with you, and there was nobody else in the room or the world. He was genuinely interested in you,” Aaron recalled while preparing the film. “I could see that in his home videos, when he was spending time with me and interested in what I was doing.”

Those videos — along with memories of a beloved uncle — help paint a portrait of a life cut short in Aaron Brookner’s film, Uncle Howard, which is now available on multiple streaming platforms (including iTunes, Amazon and Netflix).

“It’s a film about love. It’s a film about filmmaking. It’s a film about AIDS. It’s a film about the power of what you can do with your time in the world, and that what you create while you’re here can really outlive you,” the younger Brookner said.

His uncle completed only three features before he died during the worsening AIDS epidemic; but he made an indelible impression on those who traveled in his circles. He spent years with Beat writer William S. Burroughs — the subject of his 1983 documentary Burroughs, which Howard created with fillmmakers Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo.

Uncle Howard poster

Uncle Howard follows nephew Aaron as he reviews more than 300 reels of film from his uncle’s life and career, including outtakes from Burroughs, in the hopes of better understanding his childhood hero. Aaron intersperses interviews with his uncle’s former colleagues and other family — including Howard’s longtime partner, novelist Brad Gooch, who describes Howard as a genial life-loving man. Howard’s video diaries and photographs further illustrate his passion for film and life.

As Howard’s health worsened, he was directing the movie Bloodhounds of Broadway, which he would not live to see released. Aaron recalls visiting him as a youngster at St. Vincent’s Hospital, which was ground zero for treatment of AIDS patients in the early years. “I didn’t quite understand what was going on,” Brookner says now. “But it was never dark around Howard. He retained his sense of humor until the end.”

If there is a message Aaron hopes resonates with audiences, it’s to pursue your passion. “Howard died really young,” Brookner said, “but he didn’t feel entirely cheated because he was able to do what he wanted to do, and that’s an important message that we need more than ever now.”

Last modified: March 28, 2019