Open Interpretation

These considerations suggest an obvious question: Is it a good thing for an artwork to be interpretively open? We will now consider whether, and to what extent, the interpretive openness excluding Twin Peaks from the noir class is aesthetically desirable, and what, if so, this means for noir. So far we have engaged predominantly descriptive questions. It is time to address the evaluative side of the relationship.

Let us start by taking up some of the aesthetic and moral qualms we might have about interpretive openness. Generally, it might seem that we do a work, or ourselves, a disservice by failing to narrow down possible interpretations to a precise, closed, best one. But while this tack is plausible in connection with a scientific account of certain aspects of the world, the notion that artworks always—if ever—yield single, univocal interpretations, irrespective of permissibly variable purposes and standards, is easily countered.14 Instead of such general misgivings about interpretive openness, we may have specific moral concerns about such interpretive openness as Twin Peaks exhibits. (Reread Cooper's disturbing line in the dialogue above, and see note 10.) Even if we do not reify BOB outright, keeping him in limbo between reduction and reification might seem to overshadow, diminish the significance of, aestheticize, and, worse, mitigate the horror of father-daughter abuse and murder.15 From a consequentialist perspective, this might be a legitimate concern, although it is not clear how a BOB-inclusive aesthetic would transfer to our view of other works, much less make the leap—as BOB himself fictionally does—into the real world, tranquilizing or blinding us to such harsh truths. We know better. We know too much. It would seem more realistic, less evasive, to address the matter, and in a negative light, as Twin Peaks does, than to fail to broach it at all.

Some doubt might linger that interpretive openness of the sort in Twin Peaks is aesthetically desirable, and so it might be helpful to take another illustrative case. While there are many such across the arts, it seems best to use another breakthrough television series exhibiting strong interpretive openness and noirishness to boot. I have in mind The Prisoner, which has a number of crucial, yet interpretively open, elements. Throughout the series, it is unclear which side in the Cold War controls the Village, where Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan) is imprisoned. In the series finale, Number 6 finally meets Number 1, the mysterious, previously unseen agent in charge of his imprisonment, an apparently insane version of himself. This revelation invites us to read the series as a psychological allegory and yet falls short of establishing, as merely symbolic, the unreality of all the preceding events composing almost the entire series. Similarly, the finale's final shot, Number 6 in his sports car zipping down a sun-drenched highway, suggests a variety of possible interpretations: a loop back to the start of the series, a metaphor for freedom regained—or perhaps for freedom possessed all along—opti-mistically that all psychosis leads to freedom, or pessimistically, given the loop, that freedom leads to psychosis. These elements force the interpretation here wide open, and the provocative aesthetic appeal of the series is clearly enhanced, not compromised, as a result. Such interpretive openness most strikingly distinguishes series like The Prisoner and Twin Peaks from those less aesthetically rewarding.

This might seem, by implication, to undermine the aesthetic quality of noir, casting it in a pale light, too pale a light, really, since such works as The Maltese Falcon, which would be corrupted by the kind of interpretive openness in Twin Peaks, are hardly of inferior grade. It could be that, aesthetically speaking, interpretive openness is simply desirable without being strictly necessary. Admittedly, The Maltese Falcon is not interpretively open in the same way, or to the same degree, as Twin Peaks. It is naturalistic, thoroughly so. But this does not mean that it is not, even significantly, interpretively open. The aesthetic appeal of The Maltese Falcon arguably depends on a kind of interpretive openness, psychological indeterminacy. Consider the prime example of the values that guide Sam Spade through the noir labyrinth. Beyond self-preservation via solving the mystery, there seems to be far more to Spade's motivation than we may initially suspect. Yet it is not clear whether he is moved by stoically silent compassion for his dead partner, a desire to avenge his partner's death, sexual desire for the prototype femme fatale, a cruel wish to punish her, wealth in the wake of finding the Falcon, an intrinsic desire to crack the case, the principled aim of trying to redress the injustices and have the wrongdoers held accountable, the practical aim of avoiding what would be bad for business, or preventing on a wider scale what would be "bad for every detective everywhere." All are plausible; none is clearly and decisively his. Spade's is a kind of existential project, to be sure, but his psychologically uncertain status remains, and remains piquant, even in his fainthearted attempts to explain himself (citing, in turn, the last three reasons in the list above). These may be convincing enough on their own, but they do not at all seem to strike Spade himself that way. Even if we accept Spade's explanations, however, it is not without legitimate doubt. Less aesthetically satisfying noirs leave much less open. Note the unnecessary, irksome expatiations on personal motives and poetic justice in The Postman Always Rings Twice. While interpretive openness is a good thing to have in art, the degree of appropriate openness is contextually variable. For obvious reasons, the fantastic, like Twin Peaks, is more open than the realistic, noir included, which limits without eliminating openness per se.

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