For the filmgoer, the cinematic biography leaves you on your own, with only a demanding form of mental yoga &

the ability to sustain equal parts surrender and skepticism &

to guide you.

"" Raise your expectations. The best biopics transcend their subjects. "Malcolm X" wasn't a cradle-to-grave timeline of the African-American leader, it was a depiction of a man coming to moral maturity. "Capote" wasn't the tale of a small-town Southern boy's rise to literary greatness, but a close observation of a man choosing to pay the ethical price of that greatness. Conversely, when a biopic is only about its subject, it fails. One recent offender is "The Aviator," in which Leonardo DiCaprio played Howard Hughes in a then-he-did-this procedural. Full of facts and real-life figures but little else, it's the most boring movie Martin Scorsese ever made.

"" Never forget: It may be based on a true story, it may be about a real person, it may have gotten every detail right about its time and place, it may even have the blessing of its real-life subject, but the movie you're watching is fiction. No one is a reliable narrator of a life, not even the person living it.

Some of the most enjoyable biopics in recent years include feel-gooders "The Pursuit of Happyness," "Invincible," "The Rookie" and "Erin Brockovich"; all were enthusiastically endorsed by real-life referents Chris Gardner, Vince Papale, Jim Morris and Brockovich. But once they were portrayed by a big star (Will Smith, Mark Wahlberg, Dennis Quaid and Julia Roberts, respectively), a third creature was created, one the audience responded to as much for the inherent appeal of the actor as to their character's pluck and courage.

"" Ask the right questions. The past on screen is always about the present. Is "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford" an accurate depiction of what the 19th-century outlaw looked and sounded like and did? That's not the point. Far more rewarding is to ask why, out of the near dozens of films that have been made about James over the years, this is the story we're telling ourselves right now. With Brad Pitt in the role, it's impossible not to see Andrew Dominick's ambitious, stylized western as a parable about contemporary celebrity.

Critical distance isn't reserved just for movies draped in historic import or iconic symbolism. While it's possible to appreciate "American Gangster" as part of a tradition going as far back as "The Great Train Robbery," it's crucial to ask why the filmmakers &

and by extension the audience &

needed to portray cocaine boss Frank Lucas as a folk hero rather than a brutish thug. More to the point, viewers do well to ask whose stories get canonized as public history by way of biographical cinema, and who gets left out.

"" Relax, it's only a movie. Contrary to popular belief, there are historians out there who believe not only that their academic peers should stop dismissing biopics and historical movies, but that they should embrace them. As a form of popular history and a valuable one at that, these scholars contend, movies are just another "text" to be debated, contested and scrutinized. Chief among the cinema-friendly heretics is California Institute of Technology professor Robert Rosenstone, who in his book "Visions of the Past" dared to defend the "JFK" conspiracy film precisely because it is provocative. "The reaction it has evoked makes it seem like a very successful piece of historical work," Rosenstone wrote. "Not a work that tells us the truth about the past, but one that questions the official truths about the past."

"" Remember, movies are the most powerful art form of our age. We're all vulnerable, especially in a media universe more invested than ever in blurring the lines between fiction and reality, to making movies the only text. (It's come to pass that something isn't real until it's reenacted for the cameras, whether in "United 93" or the pseudo-event of a Supreme Court chief justice swearing in a new attorney general.)

As much as it's possible to admire the sweep and ambition of such classics as "Schindler's List" and "Gandhi," it's also possible to harbor deep misgivings about an entire historical period being reduced to one narrative, one character, one point of view. And the more historically important &

or contested &

the subject, the higher the stakes: A biopic of Martin Luther King Jr. carries more political and symbolic weight than, say, a film about rocker Keith Moon, which may be one reason there is a Moon project underway and not a King project.

The only recourse, it seems, is to assume that mental yoga position and hold it for as long as possible, always remembering that the movie you're about to see isn't a life. It's an imitation of a life, refracted through a shattered mirror of myth, memory and ever-shifting meaning.