The Firm – Chapter 10
A review by Semi-bored torontonian
In “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” J.L. Borges sketches a biography of the titular fictional poet (a 20th century minor French Symbolist), and a critique of his masterpiece – a word-for-word recreation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Misunderstood by many, Menard’s project is neither a bastardizing transposition of Cervantes’ hero into the 20th century, nor a mechanical reproduction of the original. Menard’s aim was not to copy but to recreate the Quixote – to live, in other words, the types of experiences that would allow him to write the exact same words as Cervantes did. To this aim, he first tried to live Cervantes’ life: he taught himself 17th century Spanish, rediscovered his Catholicism, attempted perhaps to fight the Turks. But that too, he discovered, was a cop-out. Instead, he opted to recreate the Quixote by living the typical 20th century experience – a difficult enterprise, to be sure, but also a most rewardingly creative one. The few chapters that Menard completed, Borges tells us, are nothing short of a revelation: trite or commonplace statements in Cervantes’ time have become daring postulates that fly in the face of centuries of philosophy, and the 17th century dialect has turned into a sophisticated stylistic choice.
Decades later, Gilles Deleuze would use Borges’ Pierre Menard to illustrate his crucial notions of difference and repetition – two completely intertwined concepts. Repetition always describes an unique event; but with every iteration, this event takes on a different quality, dictated by social, historical or cultural circumstances. Cervantes’ Quixote and Menard’s Quixote are the same, yet different: what was once commonplace now becomes transgressive. Repetition is crucial for art, Deleuze further points out, because repetition is always transgressive.
Had they lived, I have no doubt that both Borges and Deleuze (and of course, Pierre Menard himself) would have appreciated NBC and Sony Television’s remarkable new seriesThe Firm. Based on a decades-old John Grisham novel (as well as its film adaptation starring Tom Cruise), The Firm takes the Borgesian/Menardian/Deleuzian concepts of repetition and difference and stretches them to their limit, creating a work of art that is sure to redefine its medium for years to come.
The Firm deftly reweaves Mitch McDeere’s original story of greed and redemption into a Kafkaesque nightmare. 20 years after defeating the firm of Bendini, Lambert and Locke, McDeere comes out of hiding only to fall prey to the lure of yet another legal firm of dubious allegiances, and even more dubious intent. But, oh, how the circumstances have changed, even if the tale has stayed, maddeningly, the same! The first Firm, nefarious as it was, had personality: its name was prominent, and easy to remember; its staff (colorfully portrayed on-screen by Wilford Brimley and Gene Hackman) was memorably melodramatic and threatening. Not so in NBC’s repetitive story: while the second Firm has a name, doubtlessly stated in the pilot, it is purposefully erased from subsequent episodes; and the Firm members are marvellously portrayed by actors so skilled in the techniques of Brechtian estrangement, that, by episode 10, all voices, names and faces blend into each other, creating the perfect echoing chamber of soulless corporate presence, an endless series of interchangeable figures, designed to rob Mitch of the last remnants of his soul.
Mitch himself is a masterpiece of Menardian repetition and Deleuzian difference. In 1994, he was portrayed on screen by Tom Cruise: an iconic ball of energy and self-confidence. At that point, Cruise perfectly embodied both the qualities and the excesses of the Clinton age. Its boundless confidence in the triumph of American skill and ingenuity were captured by Cruise’s chiseled, yet boyish good looks, as well as by Mitch’s carefully crafted back history as a Harvard student, of humble origins, who pays his way through college by working as a waiter, finishes head of his class, and is fought over by top legal firms in the US. Cruise’s trademark running was the perfect symbol for the hubristic aspect of this self-confidence: the price for Mitch’s success is constant movement: he can never cease to move, to reinvent himself, or else he would be, both mentally and physically, annihilated.
20-some odd years later Mitch is the same character, yet a different one. As embodied through Josh Lucas’ sleepy, disinterested acting, Mitch is a man who faces the same circumstances by seemingly giving up. His ambition is gone, replaced by a series of trite, commonplace statements about helping “the little guys,” and “fighting the system” How hollow this sounds in the age of merciless foreclosures and corporate bailouts! His desire to stay independent and work for the downtrodden is undercut by his inability to resist the lure of The Firm, with its almost magical offer of money, power and influence. Some unimaginative TV critics have assigned Mitch’s decision to join a shady law firm for the second time in his life to sheer stupidity, or to the show runners’ lack of imagination or originality; such a limited approach fails to take into consideration the power of repetition: what was in 1994 the basis of a by-the-numbers, yet fairly involving legal thriller, becomes in 2012 a sly comment on how individuality is fated to be crushed by soulless corporatism. This time, the Firm’s nefarious purposes are irrelevant; and the show wisely chooses to keep them muddled and incoherent. Mitch’s own legal work is equally unimportant: the show brilliantly spoofs the procedural structure by offering us interchangeable “cases of the week,” which seemingly never take more than 24 hours to solve, from opening statements to final verdict (a deliciously irreverent take on our society’s obsession with immediate gratification). Cruise’s Mitch had at least the ability to outrun his enemies; as embodied by the perpetually out-of-breath Lucas, 2012’s Mitch McDeere is a man defeated by time and circumstances, who has given up on even the most basic means of self-preservation.
It’s bold, albeit cutting and heart wrenching stuff, and like any truly transgressive artistic statement, The Firm is bound to be misunderstood and slandered. The critics, perpetually seduced by the shallow lure of originality, have not been kind to the show, describing it at best as a profoundly misguided attempt at retroactively franchising a long-dead property, and at worst as a mercenary enterprise aimed at wringing a few more dollars from an irrelevant story. The ratings have proven to be disappointing too, to put it mildly. Kudos to NBC though for sticking with the show! This year the network has shown a remarkable willingness to buckle the trend and rebrand itself as a tastemaker, first by finally sideliningCommunity – one of the most grating shows currently on television, with its shameless pandering to the so-called “intellectual” demographic and superficial concern with characterization and “emotional truth.” Shedding such trivial baggage, NBC has wisely chosen to concentrate on the symbolic and the timeless, and nurture Whitney – a sophisticated meditation on the marginalization of mental illness in our society; Are you There Chelsea? – a bold reevaluation of feminist tropes; The Playboy Club – an unjustly unheralded, and too soon cancelled ode to the value of heteronormative sexuality; The Voice – a merciless satire of our seemingly endless obsession with cookie cutter karaoke shows; and now, The Firm – by far the most powerful embodiment of transgression through repetition since Knight Rider – NBC’s own prescient analysis of the collapse of the US automotive industry. The Firm may be temporarily consigned to the Saturday night wasteland, but its influence on the medium of television is sure to be felt for generations to come.
TOPICS The Firm