James Grauerholz met budding filmmaker Howard Brookner at Phebe's Bar & Grill in Manhattan during the Great Blizzard of 1976. Brookner lived around the corner from the Bunker and he and Grauerholz soon became fast friends, working on film-writing projects.
In 1978, Burroughs was preparing a return to New York City from Boulder, Colorado, where Bill Burroughs Jr. had been hospitalized. "I had talked Howard into covering the upcoming Nova Convention in September," Grauerholz remembers. "He and I and Jim Jarmusch, who was doing sound, went to Boulder to film William leaving for New York. During the coverage of the Nova Convention, William and Howard became great personal friends."
Their friendship led to close collaboration on Brookner's insightful 1983 documentary film, Burroughs: the Movie, and to Brookner's 1987 feature film, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Howard Brookner died of AIDS at age 34 in 1989.
In the 1990s, Howard's nephew, Aaron, took up the family filmmaking mantle. That story is told below. "Aaron's resemblance to Howard is truly eerie," says Grauerholz. "They even sound alike."
On February 5, 2014, during a wailing blizzard, Aaron Brookner and his film crew visited the Burroughs house in Lawrence, Kansas.
- B100: A brief history of Aaron Brookner.
- Brookner: I grew up in Greenwich Village. Howard Brookner, my uncle, started my interest in movies from an early age, showing me how to use a video camera and taking me to the set of his last movie, Bloodhounds of Broadway. A year after Howard's death from AIDS in 1989, my father moved us to New Jersey.
I majored in film at Vassar College. For a senior documentary class I made a short doc on the Federation of Black Cowboys - a group of black cowboys in Brooklyn who have a ranch, do rodeos and ride through the city streets promoting the history of America's black cowboys. One in three cowboys in the Old West was black but they were never represented. This group was trying to correct it.
The writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront, What Makes Sammy Run?), had seen The Black Cowboys at a festival and really liked it. He was 91, we got along well and I started making a film on his life inspired, obviously, by Howard's first film on William Burroughs.
Schulberg was covering fights in Las Vegas, co-writing a Joe Louis/Max Schmeling script with Spike Lee and touring France with a newly adapted version of one of his lesser-known novels, Sanctuary V. I started traveling with him, filming him, interviewing him and many of his contemporaries like Patricia Neal, Tony Curtis, Christopher Plummer and Arthur Laurents. I interviewed Eva Marie Saint and met Karl Malden. The film came crashing down when Schulberg died at age 95.
I had been making music videos and experimental work and then a low-budget fiction feature shot in London called The Silver Goat which we put out in 2012 as an app. We wanted to explore alternate modes of distribution. The app has been downloaded in twenty-four different countries and was a top entertainment seller in the UK and the Czech Republic.
Having made my first feature film I started thinking more about Howard, wondering about his films and where they had gone. Especially his Burroughs film, Burroughs: the Movie, which I had only ever seen on VHS and, in recent years, in low-resolution on YouTube. It had been such an influence on me, watching it hundreds of times through high school. I wanted to see it properly and wanted others too as well. Also, I wanted my uncle Howard's name not to be forgotten so I set out to bring back his work.
- B100: A brief history of your project to date.
- Brookner: My film started when Sara Driver and I started talking about Burroughs: the Movie. She was a great friend of Howard's; they were at film school together at NYU. All the elements to Sara's first film, an adaptation of Paul Bowles' You Are Not I, had been destroyed in a flood. Then a pristine print was miraculously discovered in Tangier after Paul Bowles' death. She was able to make a new HD master from it and show it again, release it, and know that it existed properly! I set out to do the same for the Burroughs movie, looking for the negative.
In my search I connected with James Grauerholz; Sara, of course, and also her partner Jim Jarmusch (who did sound on Burroughs: the Movie); the writer Brad Gooch (Howard's longtime partner); and, to an extent, John Giorno.
Everyone wanted to see the movie come back, everyone helped me on my search. It turned up all sorts of things like Howard's home movies, behind-the-scenes footage of his other films, video diaries, short films, writings, audio tapes, tons of photos and the missing film prints from his second feature documentary on Robert Wilson. Along the way, the stories that came from those who knew my uncle were full of life, adventure, and humor. His story began taking shape cinematically in my mind.
I found a really chilling letter he wrote to his parents to be read after his death, telling them he had AIDS, that he was dying and would die, but that he didn't want them to let it ruin their lives because, while it was short, Howard had done exactly what he wanted with his life. He went as far as he could go and in the end felt content. He wrote that if he lived on it was in our hearts and memories and the films he made. I was very pleased when this actually started happening.
The biggest discovery occurred when I was able to retrieve Howard's archive which had been stored in the Bunker for 30 years. These were some 200 cans and boxes of outtakes that didn't make his 90-minute cut---but they were beyond outtakes. They were an incredible documentation of a place and time, downtown NYC from 1978-1983, as seen through the world of William Burroughs.
In the raw material you get the source of the tone of the movie, intimate and playful and comfortable to watch. The source is Howard directing the movie. You can see him slating, or Jarmusch, hear his questions, his dialogues with William when the camera is still rolling though they aren't "on." James Grauerholz is always there. It feels like a real family.
In a storage container belonging to Brad Gooch, I found an audiocassette interview of Howard by Ted Morgan. Morgan asks Howard about the last shot of his film, where William and James Grauerholz are sitting on the back porch in Lawrence, and William in the back yard, and why he ended the film there. Howard said it was his intention to go back and continue the film in two more chapters: William's life in Lawrence; and William's funeral. Howard didn't get a chance to do this, of course.
For the Burroughs centenary I was shooting in St. Louis and Lawrence, picking up the story for 2014. Some very interesting things happened. There's a lot of magic going on right now, fittingly, in this centenary year, which is also the year Howard would have turned 60. I still have plenty to go through but I've begun assembling some of the material, hoping to translate some of this magic into the cut.
- B100: Describe a magic moment.
- Brookner: Last week I got into a cab in NYC with my film crew. The driver asked us what we were shooting. I said a documentary about Howard Brookner and William Burroughs. He knew Burroughs and we started talking about him.
He called Burroughs an activist through his art. Turned out the driver was a native New Yorker who had been into the downtown poetry scene in the late 1970s. In 1978 he attended the Nova Convention. At this point he started to look familiar to me. I photographed him, then compared the image later to that of a teenager in the audience of the Nova Convention from Howard's movie. Just a cutaway, but one Howard used obviously because the guy looks super-engaged. Sure enough--same nose, same eyes, same expression---it was the driver! This cutaway is even in the trailer we just made for the film.
Had I gotten to the corner of Center Street and Kenmare one minute later or one minute sooner I'd never know this guy existed. Instead, an overlap in time and a conversation about Burroughs and the Nova Convention started my day. Everything is pre-recorded except the pre-recordings indeed.
Part Two, coming soon.
Interview by Tom King
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