Jean-Luc Godard is not merely the iconoclastic, indefatigable enfant terrible of France's New Wave but one of the most idiosyncratic and important filmmakers of the 20th century, whose innovative spirit continues to flourish into the 21st.
His astonishingly productive career has gone through distinct phases, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive's "For Ever Godard" will present selections from the earlier part of his career beginning Saturday and running subsequent weekends through June 16 at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood's Hammer Museum.
Now in his 77th year, Godard began his movie career as a critic, primarily for Cahiers du cinema, before making his feature debut in 1959 with "Breathless," an early landmark film in the New Wave, which marked a break with France's "cinema of quality," which he and other critics-turned-filmmakers such as Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol had passionately dismissed as moribund. Although Godard would become a steadfast and impassioned critic of the U.S. for its waging of the Vietnam War -- and a shrewd observer of what he saw as cultural imperialism -- he has a vast knowledge and love of classic Hollywood cinema, not to mention world cinema. Shot from the hip in black and white, "Breathless" made a star of Jean-Paul Belmondo as a Humphrey Bogart-idolizing petty crook, a naif ensnared by a pretty American girl (Jean Seberg).
"Breathless" launched a series of 15 films, culminating in 1967 with "Weekend," which aptly climaxes in a famous set piece, a seemingly endless car wreck, symbolic of the fate he foresees for a ravenous consumer society. For all their bold stylistic devices -- the trademark barrages of philosophical aphorisms and printed quotes and statements that punctuate them, these are his most popular and accessible films. A number of them glow with the radiance of the exquisite and gifted Anna Karina, his muse and briefly his wife. However, after the May 1968 riots, sparked in part by the firing of Cinematheque Francaise founder and director Henri Langlois (subsequently reinstated), Godard rejected what he decided was bourgeois filmmaking. He formed the Dziga-Vertov Group, joining with Jean-Pierre Gorin and others to make a series of essay-like films espousing radical political views and examining critical theories that a sampling suggests are stultifying to the point of being unwatchable, even for the most steadfast of Godard admirers. This group dissolved in the early '70s, with Godard then teaming with his partner to this day, Anne-Marie Mieville, first in a series of provocative experimental TV programs; this phase is represented by "Numero Deux" (1975), a recording of a working family's everyday life.
In the 1980s Godard returned to feature filmmaking, both narratives and documentaries, that have been more complex, challenging and elliptical than ever -- films that make extreme demands of viewers but reward them with an always original vision of the contemporary world. He expects audiences to make connections for themselves as never before, but his deadpan, absurdist sense of humor persists. His films reverberate with paradox; he has confronted unflinchingly most of the social ills and catastrophes of his time, yet his work shimmers with strikingly distinctive, revealing images, sometimes rushing past in a jagged jumble, other times in a poetic flow. Godard films are beautiful to look at and superbly lighted, whether in high-contrast black and white or in the clearest, most natural color imaginable. Riding all the currents coursing through contemporary life, as well as observing the eternal verities from new angles, Godard films capture the moment in which they are made so thoroughly that they bristle with an immediacy that makes them timeless. The reputations of many important directors ebb and flow, but it's hard to imagine Jean-Luc Godard ever becoming dated or going out of style.
"For Ever Godard" focuses on the early features, and "Breathless," the opening attraction, is framed by three rarities, Godard's first short, "Operation Beton" (1954), chronicling the construction of the Grande Dixence Dam in his native Switzerland; "Une Histoire d'Eau" (1958), a comedy short co-directed with Francois Truffaut; and "J-LG by J-LG" (1994), a melancholy self-portrait. The series includes such seminal films as "A Married Woman" (1964), "Alphaville" (1965), "Pierrot le Fou" (1965), "Contempt" (1963) and "One Plus One" (1975), an account of the Rolling Stones composing "Sympathy for the Devil" -- the film is also known by that name -- in which Godard blurs the line between documentary and fiction.
Of special importance is a reprise of his 260-minute film "Histoire(s) du Cinema," made for French TV between 1988 and 1998, which UCLA premiered in February 2006 and which will again be shown in two parts. Godard's survey of 20th century cinema becomes a commentary about the century itself and in the process turns into one long Godard movie.
"For Ever Godard," Billy Wilder Theater, Armand Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Saturday through June 2.
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.: "Operation Beton," "Une Histoire d'Eau," "Breathless," "J-LG by J-LG."
Sunday, 7:30 p.m.: "Le Petit Soldat," "Les Carabiniers."
Information and tickets: www.cinema.ucla.edu or (310) 206-FILM.