The separation of art and artist is a part of the artistic conversation that only seems to be ramping up. But most of that conversation involves reconciling the entertainment value of a work of art with the… let’s say, indiscretions of the person(s) that made it. But there’s a different side of that debate, where an artist bears witness to their art being co-opted, altered, and utilised in ways that they never intended. David Fincher went through it with Fight Club, the Wachowskis are still going through it with The Matrix, and in this documentary, we see Pepe The Frog’s creator Matt Furie wrestle with that same dilemma.
Watching this is akin to most things involving the internet; it starts from an inconspicuous and even innocent place but then turns into a slow-mo tumble down the rabbit hole. Through filmmaker Arthur Jones’ framing (and some excellently trippy animated sequences), the film takes the role of meme anthropologist, studying the image of Pepe from his comic book origins, to 4chan, to the political sphere, to areas of cryptocurrency and even chaos magic. It’s a commendable deep dive, not unlike a higher-budget version of a Fredrik Knudsen video, immersing itself in the subject throughout its many, many twists and turns.
While a fair amount of the set-up can feel like Memes For Dummies, the way it gets into the power of memes and symbology as a whole, makes for captivating stuff. Showing Pepe as an abstraction of real life personalities, whether it’s Furie’s post-college lifestyle or personifying online sad bois, it’s an eerie and surreal look at the internet as irony carwash, with the many-folded face of the frog changing so many hands that, for Furie, what is out there in the world barely resembles what he created; like watching your child grow into a literal monster.
As much as the wild cluster of subject matters tackled in the film threaten to overwhelm Furie himself, mirroring his connection to the character itself, the artist at the ostensible center of this web of activity gives the film an overall optimistic tone. In keeping with the examinations of the power of images and how concentrated intent has the potential to alter reality (a fitting observation for these post-truth times), his attempts to turn it into something less toxic, if not retrieve the character entirely, pit him as the pure soul up against the murky depths of the net.
Feels Good Man doesn’t pull punches on how naïve Matt Furie’s understanding of all this was when he started (he’s the kind of guy who says “twisted my noodles” unironically), but it also doesn’t disparage the idea of a more W H O L E S O M E Pepe. It’s just a matter of what gets poured into it, and after soaking in the darkness for so long, maybe it’s time to let the sunshine in.