There were no happy accidents on a Stanley Kubrick set: no mumbling extras, no unplanned shadows, no errant air molecules. Genius as his body of work undeniably is, the overriding impression (much like that of his current acolyte David Fincher) is that of a Supreme Intelligence watching ants stumble through increasingly chilly mazes. Stanley Kubrick first became STANLEY KUBRICK, for all intents and purposes, with 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey, that still mind-blowing trip featuring a computer as the most sympathetic character. 2001's success ensured that he would never look back (well, except for figuratively, in the case of the gorgeous, glacially paced 19th century Barry Lyndon), crafting a series of films so implacably self-assured that I almost feel unworthy to pick at them: A Clockwork Orange; The Shining; most of Eyes Wide Shut. Impressive as these all are, they also feel, in retrospect, curiously draining. Once you know about the director's dehumanizing process on the set—casting actors by videotape, routinely shooting hundreds of takes on the most mundane activities—the blistering boot camp sequences of Full Metal Jacket begins to seem like an (unintentional?) self-parody of Kubrick's directorial style.
So with the Northwest Film Center's Kubrick retrospective stretching through August, it's his early films that are most worth checking out: the pulpy, atypically messy Spartacus; the searing anti-war melodrama Paths of Glory; the filthy black comic chuckle of Lolita; and the glorious Dr. Strangelove, where the comic genius of Peter Sellers, Slim Pickens, and the great galumphing George C. Scott all proved too outsized for the filmmaker to mute. Perhaps even better, and infinitely more revealing, is The Killing, where pulp god Jim Thompson's script forced Kubrick further into the dirt and muck and grime than he would ever go again. Watching the end of the film, where a tightly planned heist becomes undone by random chance, you can almost see the director noting the fate of his characters and saying, nope, not me.