1983’s Burroughs: The Movie was a fly-on-the-wall documentary about novelist, satirical fabulist, straight-laced libertine and lifelong gun nut William S Burroughs, directed by first-time filmmaker Howard Brookner. A sterling, oddly moving Portrait of an Artist-style doc, it enjoyed unparalleled access to Burroughs’ inner sanctum (his labyrinthine and much-storied New York apartment “The Bunker”), his famous friends and the man himself. Brookner’s former film school buddies and future no wave directors Tom DiCillo (Living in Oblivion) and Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise) were on camera and sound respectively and the doc went on to be a hit with critics and played around the world.
Uncle Howard follows Aaron Brookner’s attempts to piece together his uncle’s life and premature death from offcuts and outtakes from the film, as well as video diaries and documents that have been mouldering in The Bunker since Burroughs’ death in 1997. But though this is all clearly very well-intentioned, whether it is of any cinematic worth or interest to anyone beyond the Brookners’ friends and family is debatable. Moreover, the fact that Aaron was so evidently close to his uncle Howard means that he is sometimes unable to see the wood for the trees. Howard’s follow-up film was a documentary called Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars. We learn only belatedly and tangentially that Wilson was a theatre director, but what the “Civil Wars” are is anyone’s guess. It was, no doubt, a big thing in the Brookner household, but the rest of us could benefit from a little info. It might also be intriguing to investigate to what extent the revelation that he was dying of AIDS had upon the perception of Howard’s failed Hollywood foray Bloodhounds of Broadway – starring Madonna and Matt Dillon – but any such questions are simply not asked.
A bit of a puzzler, then – initially, at least. The subject of this documentary is a documentarian, who was therefore adept at blending into the background. He was quiet, stoic and reserved. He was obviously talented, but is that enough to warrant a feature-length portrait? Aaron Brookner’s film never feels as if it’s entirely sure. Is it a home movie? A documentary about a documentary? A video biography? A portrait of the 80s New York arts scene? It eventually becomes clear that Uncle Howard is all of these things, but fails to totally convince as any of them.
Adam Lee Davies
Uncle Howard does not yet have an official UK release date.
Read more of our reviews and interviews from the festival here.
For further information about the Berlin Film Festival 2016 visit here.
Watch the trailer for Uncle Howard here: