The era of cancel culture has inspired abundant discourse examining the relationship between artist and art. This summer, J.K. Rowling controversially critiqued gender-inclusive rhetoric as undermining biology, and heartbroken “Harry Potter” fans championed the separation of story and storyteller. In this instance, the separation of art and artist realigns artistic agency on the side of inclusion.
But what happens when the art itself becomes problematic?
In his documentary “Feels Good Man,” director Arthur Jones inverts this conventional paradigm to examine the unpredictable, sinister consequences of when art slips away from the artist. “Feels Good Man” focuses on the Pepe the Frog cartoon and Matt Furie, its creator, chronicling Pepe’s fascinating transformation from an innocuous cartoon character to a quintessential meme to a hateful symbol co-opted by the alt-right. Jones crafts a powerful cautionary tale prying open some of the internet’s darkest corners and highlighting the unsuspecting artist haunted by his work’s perverse shadow.
The film portrays Furie as an earnest, sensitive and laid-back artist who loves his family and tries his best. Pepe sprung from Furie’s personal life, the frog initially bearing close similarities to the cartoonist himself. The character first represented post-college idleness and a relatable masculine stupor, suffused with fart jokes, beer, dick jokes and drugs. It is from this initial image of Pepe that the documentary plucks its name. In one of Furie’s first comics, Pepe takes a leak and pulls his underwear down to the floor. One of Pepe’s friends questions why he goes to the bathroom that way, and the cartoon frog simply replies, “Feels good man.”
As this comic circulated the internet, Pepe and his catchphrase swept the changing tides of the internet, but his image staked unmatched ground on the website 4chan. “Feels Good Man” explores how 4chan users engaged in “Darwinian competition” for attention. While this virtual environment fostered rampant meme generation, the competition incited rivalries between users to be the most offensive. Furie envisioned Pepe as a “happy little frog,” an ideal eclipsed by the internet’s desire for a “sad frog.” The film suggests this mutated image of Pepe offers an emotional laxative for disempowered young men who built their internet lives around self-loathing and social rejection. In stunningly candid clips, the filmmaker speaks with these “4chan-ers” who feel personally attached to Pepe’s ability to veil vulnerability through dark humor.
The film details two biographies, Furie’s and Pepe’s, lamenting the latter’s loss of innocence and the former’s loss of ownership. While Furie rejects his own victimhood, it’s not hard to sympathize with the Birkenstock-clad cartoonist and root for his efforts to reclaim Pepe in the name of peace. “Feels Good Man” leaves viewers with a striking realization that the internet holds the power to catastrophically divorce art from its artist.
One of the film’s most fascinating threads follows Furie as he attempts to unravel commercial reproductions of Pepe’s corrupted image. Furie’s fight to reel in his creation, however, transforms into a battle against the internet’s Hydra — after terminating one poisonous frog, two more respawn in its place.
The documentary will not appeal, or even make sense, to every audience. “Feels Good Man” corrals viewers through a weird, winding labyrinth to unpack a uniquely contemporary problem in the aesthetics of hate and the dark side of the web. The film fashions unique storytelling through fantastical animations of Pepe and other characters, set in a psychedelic, candy-crushed color palette. The connection between memes and racist rancor is admittedly difficult to envision.
While tracing how Pepe went rogue, the documentary operates with a knowledge of the niche that propels the film’s first half to feel like a breathless sprint. As the story unfolds, however, Jones finds his rhythm burrowing down disturbing rabbit holes that line the outskirts of the internet. Some excavations aren’t as tidy as others, but in these instances, “Feels Good Man” nonetheless entertains. The film ultimately illuminates disturbing skeletons hidden in the cultural closet with a flickering hope for redemption.