There’s a brief moment in Jailhouse Rock (1957) that pretty much sums up the entire bizarre Elvis-in-Hollywood phenomenon: The King is putting the make on a chick who hotly protests his “tactics,” at which point he drawls, “Those ain’t tactics, honey. It’s just the beast in me.” Elvis, of course, was both beauty and beast, and even today remains an immeasurable conundrum. Equal parts mythic idol and ridiculed jackass, he’s a weird cultural workhorse, straining beneath the loads those on both sides continue to pile on. And it may be in his movies that Elvis’ best and worst are most graphically displayed. The American Cinematheque’s five-night Elvis retrospective delivers both in spades, pairing a rank piece of shit like the Elvis-in-the-Army GI Blues (1960) with Elvis & June (2002), a documentary that captures the twilight of Presley’s hot-pink boyhood, circa 1956, with elegiac restraint and a painstaking chronology of that year’s career breakout and the ensuing destruction of his fragile private life. It’s also fascinating for some rarely seen, color 8mm footage, shot during a 1956 Mississippi romp, with Elvis sporting a Luftwaffe officer’s peaked cap — a juxtaposition of iconography wild enough to short-circuit the synapses. The rest of the Cinematheque-selected titles are similarly hit-and-miss: The double-oater bill Flaming Star (1960) and Love Me Tender (1956) is a yawn fest; the white-trash soap opera Follow That Dream (1962) engagingly pairs Presley with Tuesday Weld, but the boxing-flick remake Kid Galahad (1962) just lies there and bleeds. Saturday has two of his best: the greasy-punk sizzler Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958), where Elvis holds his own — thankyewverymush — against some fine costars (Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones). But why the dreadful 2005 TV miniseries Elvis also appears is unfathomable. Finally, Jayce and Tiffany Bartok’s Altered by Elvis (2006), another documentary, provides a climactic note as it meanders through the minds and memories of various stalkers, sycophants and nut jobs, reinforcing the undeniable truth that Elvis not only changed the world, he still owns most of it. (American Cinematheque at the Egyptian and Aero theaters; thru Aug. 20.

—Jonny Whiteside

LA Weekly