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Life's a Blur

"JFK" starred Kevin Costner as the DA who said a conspiracy was behind the Kennedy assassination. (Warner Brothers)

Stop with the same old story. Is there better Oscar bait than a juicy role playing a tormented artist visiting the preordained stations of the creative cross?

Think Jamie Foxx, who effectively lip-synched his way through "Ray." Or Reese Witherspoon, who played June Carter Cash in "Walk the Line." Or Marion Cotillard, who is an odds-on favorite to be nominated for an Academy Award for her uncanny portrayal of French chanteuse Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose."

Am I the only one who's had enough of the hackneyed arc of discovery-destruction-redemption?

Like the "great man" cycle of the 1930s, Hollywood now seems to be in a tortured artist cycle, with films being extruded to assembly-line specifications showing the humble beginnings, flashes of genius and finally, self-indulgent excesses of prodigies (keep on the lookout for a Janis Joplin biopic, as well as the welcome parody, "Walk Hard").

The messy, contradictory, adamantly nonlinear truth of a life is much better served by a film that doesn't shoehorn its subject into a neat, three-act structure. One of the best biopics of all time is "Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould," Francois Girard's 1993 portrait of the Canadian pianist that took its structure from Gould's most famous performance, Bach's Goldberg Variations. The brief vignettes, some of them verbatim reenactments, some whole cloth, added up to a rich, vivid film portrait that did justice to its subject by leaving his mysteries intact. (See also: "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus," "American Splendor" and, if you can, a bootleg copy of Todd Haynes's 1987 "Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story," a biopic enacted entirely by Barbie dolls.)

For filmgoers

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 (Cate Blanchett delivered her own Oscar-worthy impersonation, in this case of Katharine Hepburn, and she won one), but little else; it's the most boring movie Martin Scorsese ever made. (See also: "Patton," "Ed Wood.")

. . . Then manage them. 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 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. (See also: "They Died With Their Boots On" and "Little Big Man," or "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13.")

Chillax, 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 "JFK" 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."

. . . But 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. (Like Rosenstone, I've defended "JFK" on purely artistic grounds, only to be brought up short when my stepdaughter asked me if the CIA really got away with offing a U.S. president. I wanly encouraged her to research the history and form her own conclusions.) 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 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.

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