A while back, I had an idea to dissect a particularly rich film by doing a micro-essay for each individual minute (sort of like a Star Wars Minute for people more into boring academia than funny podcasts, I guess). I chose Pan’s Labyrinth, because it’s gorgeous and I could watch it over and over without even having a reason.
Of course, that idea turned out to be both labor-intensive and just a tad repetitive (plus, I don’t have the education to talk in such depth about many of the technical aspects of what’s working so brilliantly from moment to moment), but I still did finish a small percentage of the micro-essays, so I figured I’d publish one or two here, just for posterity. I still love the idea, in that it’s fun to tease out all the many interwoven threads of successful narrative art. In any case: Enjoy.
There are no visuals in the first minute of Pan’s Labyrinth. As the opening credits flutter in and out, we hear two things: first, a strange ambient noise quietly echoing in the background, and then (much louder) a child’s heavy, rapid breathing. Over these sounds comes a song central to the movie: the lullaby, which we know nothing about at this opening moment except that it sounds like something being hummed by a woman and that it is both haunting and beautiful.
We’re in a surreal, blank dreamscape, in other words; we’re primed for a surreal visual to pair with this layered sound design.
Instead: “Spain, 1944.” We get our quick history lesson, our context for the reality of the film, as text overlaid over a nightmare. Of course, as the text crawl explains, Spain in 1944 was something of a war-torn nightmare, but before the movie has even shown a visual on screen it has already begun to play with the line between a child’s (albeit frightening) dream and the reality of the world around her.
This is something we come back to repeatedly with Pan’s Labyrinth, and it’s therefore no accident that the movie begins with such a juxtaposition: This is a movie about how our dreams, no matter how fantastical, are born out of our waking lives, and how the two can bleed together freely and meaningfully especially in the most traumatic of circumstances.
Also (probably more) worth reading: Jim Emerson’s on Pan’s Labyrinth‘s opening shot, written back in 2007.