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Uncle Howard

The man who filmed William S. Burroughs: documentary rescues the legacy of young, audacious and prematurely silenced filmmaker Howard Brookner, who captured the Beat poet and his fellow writers in an entirely unforeseen way

Documentarists are always seeking a hidden treasure. It can be a concealed truth, a declamatory style, an intriguing revelation, or a story without a disclosure. Aaron Brookner was in search of his own identity as a filmmaker. By telling the story of his uncle, he not only revealed a vibrant period of New York City history, but also he rediscovered his uncle’s influence on him and many artists in the US.

Uncle Howard – whose name was Howard Brookner – filmed a magnificent documentary about the Beat Generation poet William S. Burroughs in 1983. Despite being young and inexperienced, Howard won the trust of the famous writer. Howard’s creative process was very free and intuitive, which resonates with Burroughs’ own writing style. Burroughs (1914-1997) and his fellow writers – including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti – were as much about an attitude and culture as they were about a literary style. The Beats were an exponent of the US counter-culture in the 1950s. They rejected literary formalism and the American culture built on capitalism and consumerism. They were also influenced by jazz music, and often improvised in literature.

Their stream-of-consciousness and spontaneous prose style gathered a community of artists in Greenwich Village in New York City as well as in San Francisco. Burroughs promoted real literary salons in his darkly lit, three-room, white windowless flat in Lower East Side – it was affectionately nicknamed “the Bunker”. In his Burroughs, The Movie, Howard Brookner recreated that atmosphere of the 1950s and thereby provided an intimate glimpse into the life of Burroughs. But Burroughs, The Movie went missing. So that is when Aaron gets into stage. He was determined to find his uncle’s memories and films.

In Uncle Howard, we see Aaron getting into the Bunker and recovering some footage and documents. Aaron brings together a number of his uncle’s collaborators and contemporaries to recount the life of Howard who passed away in 1989, at the age of just 35 – he was prematurely silenced by Aids. Among them is Jim Jarmusch, who was the sound recordist of the movie. Jarmusch’s films are visibly influenced by literature and pop music, and it is not a surprise that in his early days he was connected to Burroughs and Howard.

Aaron’s style is very disruptive, similarly to Burrough’s. He jumps from Howard to Burroughs and then again to Howard in order to recreate a stream-of-consciousness of his own childhood. He films his grandmother’s testimony on the issues of raising a out-of-the-closet homosexual. He edits his uncle’s footages to show how far he went despite dying at his prime. Howard was undoubtedly a risk-taker.

Uncle Howard premiered at the East London Film Festival, it aslo showed this at the BFI Southbank. It is out in cinemas from Friday, December 16th.

Burroughs: The Movie has been digitally restored and it is out in cinemas on December 16th.

Watch Uncle Howard‘s trailer below:

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By Maysa Monção - 04-07-2016

Maysa Monção is a Brazilian writer, teacher, translator, editor and art performer who currently lives in London. She has a Masters Degree in Film Studies from Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, ...

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