By Chris Willman
Updated September 01, 2007 at 12:00 PM EDT
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There will be blood on the tracks. The 34th annual Telluride Film Festival opened in Colorado Friday night, with attention particularly trained on the world premieres of two projects that have been in the making and buzzed about for years: Todd Haynes’ take on the life of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s uncharacteristic foray into period filmmaking, the Upton Sinclair adaptation There Will Be Blood. Well, actually, it was just one reel, or about 20 minutes’ worth, of that latter film. There will be frustration!

I’m Not There was being seen for the very first time, since press screenings that had been arranged for journalists attending the upcoming Toronto Film Festival, where it will also unspool, were canceled. It’s every bit as loopy as you’ve imagined, assuming you’re familiar with the basic conceit — that six different actors play various aspects of Dylan’s personae. In other words, it’s Palindromes meets No Direction Home… with good portions of the film playing out as a parody of that latter documentary, which premiered in Telluride two years ago. Most successful at incarnating Dylan, oddly enough, is Cate Blanchett, getting the most screen time and obviously having a ball playing the Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan with a fright wig. Visibly suffering onscreen, meanwhile, is poor Richard Gere, who plays Dylan as Billy the Kid — or maybe playing an actor playing Billy the Kid? — and looks even more baffled about what he’s supposed to be doing than we are. Somewhere in between are Heath Ledger (who plays Dylan as a hot Hollywood actor; though this makes no sense, it’s a chance to dramatize the protagonist’s divorce from Sara Dylan while heading even further into the realm of fictionalization). Christian Bale (portraying him in both his folk-singer and born-again phases), and, yes, an African American lad who likes the ride the rails, à la Woody Guthrie (bringing to mind The Jerk, since apparently Dylan, too, was born as a poor black child). Like a lot of my fellow Dylanologists in the audience, I chuckled at the sections that use dialogue from Dylan’s press conferences and concerts almost verbatim, but for the non-buffs I’ve talked with, it seems to play out pretty much as a 2-hours-15-minutes series of in-jokes. At least it’s more coherent and commercial than Dylan’s own 2003 writing and starring effort, Masked and Anonymous. But maybe not a lot more.

As for There Will Be Blood, the first rumors had the filmpremiering in its entirety as part of a festival tribute to DanielDay-Lewis; the second set of rumors were less optimistic, with P.T.Anderson supposedly bringing a 40-minute piece of the movie. Thereality turned out to be even less: just 20 minutes. But as singularreels go, this one was a doozy — I kept checking my watch, hoping theexcerpt wasn’t about to wrap up.

addCredit(“Telluride Film Festival: Chris Willman; Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Thomas Anderson: Chris Willman”)

Anderson (at right) claimed that this was theonly reel of the film that was finished enough to show, but it sets upthe plot’s multiple conflicts so neatly, I had to wonder if he didn’tpick this segment because it just makes for a great, self-containedtrailer for the film. As Day-Lewis (left) told the crowd, it’s “really,really, really, really loosely based” on the Sinclair novel (I forgethow many times he said “loosely,” but I believe it was about five).It’s also hardly recognizable as an Anderson film, from the looks ofthings, not being an ensemble piece, for starters. Yet to to the extentthat his pictures tend to focus on weird extended families in generaland father/child relationships in particular, it’s easy to see Blood aspart of an Anderson throughline. In the excerpt, Day-Lewis, playing aself-styled “oil man,” is first seen telling his young son that heplans to buy some crude-rich land under false pretenses, making his kidcomplicit in his duplicity. Soon, he’s buying a plot from a naïvefarmer whose intensely religious and suspicious son looks like thefilm’s principle antagonist. But there are other potential enemies setup, since Day-Lewis tells the workers he brings in to work the desert landthat the area will be irrigated and literally bear fruit, and they’llset up a thriving town there. Unless you’ve seen more verdant oilfields than I have, you know that particular plot thread probably won’tend happily either. But we’ll all have to wait till December to seethe promised red stuff of the title.

Premiering Saturday: the Sean Penn-directed adaptation of Into the Wild. More on that in our next report…

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