To meme or not to meme. Memetic culture has become mainstream culture. A simple rendition of a frog, an exaggerated self-portrait of the artist Matt Furie, has been radicalized by hate groups. You have seen the frog before. His popularity skyrocketed during the last Presidential Election, becoming a mascot of the alt-right. The frog’s story escaped the control of his creator, taking on a destructive internet life of its own, a kind of widespread adoption that is impossible to reel back in. This is the story of an artist attempting to reclaim and recontextualize their work.
The internet requires a strong reaction. It rewards an Instagram lifestyle, of smiling faces and sunny locals. But that is not reality. Frustrated young men stay indoors and pout at their computer screens. They scroll the dark pockets of the anonymous internet and find a symbol that embodies their frustrations. It’s a simple frog, as sad as they are. It’s everything they really feel, that the internet never captures. And he has a perfect meme-ready catch-phrase. “Feels good man,” he says, after dropping his pants to pee. It readily captures a strong feeling that could be attached to anything, with deep self-implied irony, perfectly fluid for any and all situations.
Matt Furie did not intend to create a meme. He created Pepe for his comic book Boys Club, of which Pepe is just one character, that happens to both represent his spirit, and, somehow, look like its artist. He did not ask for it but the internet also does not ask permission. What follows is a kind of purgatory for any artist. Matt’s work is finally embraced and passively shared across the net, until it becomes politicized, and becomes a destructive force in the world.
Most surprising about Feels Good Man is documentarian Arthur Jones’ commitment to the story. He explores every nook and cranny of Pepe’s lifespan. It’s not only a thoroughly examined document of the creation and spread of one of history’s most circulated memes, but also a philosophical exploration of the artistic creation myth and the propriety of what we share on the internet. While intensely specialized, it is also the clearest and most devoted documentary of the year toward its subject, pouring through every piece of Pepe’s progression and creating a multi-layered story with many angles. An intersection of art, politics, and philosophy, it more than does justice to what in less capable hands could have felt opportunistic or even exploitative of Matt’s struggle to regain legal control of his frog.
A wonderful blending of animation, internet information, and key interviews with all sides of the Pepe debacle is what elevates Feels Good Man above the average internet culture doc. And there are so many arriving at the same time. Few find the genuine maturity to honor their subject. Many feel trapped inside the same memetic culture of their subject — it feels bad, man. By embracing the absurdity of its premise and going whole-hog (frog), it truly becomes an investigation of the seediest aspects of the internet. Enlivened by sharp animated translations of the original comic, there is a lot of technique there and a truly efficient edit to tie it all together.
Feels Good Man does so much. So much that it could not possibly fully explore every avenue it opens up. It is truly a definitive internet history, developed with insightful technique. If Matt could not win back his creation — and the documentary makes a strong case that it is impossible — perhaps the filmmaking itself has achieved an even greater victory for the artist. It has created an elaborate portrait that paints an understanding of what he has made, how it has been used, and then the counter-struggle to win back his art. In some sense, Feels Good Man is Matt’s final word and victory over the alt-right adoption of his symbol because he could not fight the internet himself.
As we face toward another election cycle, American life has dramatically changed. A frog no longer encompasses a full range of emotions about where we are as a people. Our present issues are morally complex and deserve longform answers. The internet has a long memory and anything as widely distributed as Pepe will always hold a place in its history. And yet, Feels Good Man is the very moral reclamation of art that Matt is looking for. It is a symbolic redemption story for a country seeking its own redemption.