Sundance 2020 Review: A Nation’s Anxiety is Revealed in Arthur Jones’ Diverting “Feels Good Man”

“I’ve never had to explain any of this shit,” Matt Furie ruminates early on in “Feels Good Man,” reflecting on a simpler time when he worked at the Community Thrift Shop is San Francisco, a job where he’d be inspired to draw by all the used toys that were donated for resale. The low-maintenance gig allowed him the space to create a comic called “Boys Club,” featuring anthropomorphic characters resembling the humans in his own life, and one in particular, based off a relative he once spied relieving himself with his pants all the way down, saying “Feels Good Man” wound up taking off when the artist began posting his work to MySpace in 2005, though Furie would be the last to know.

Now, everyone it seems is aware of Pepe the Frog, which was embraced as a symbol by the Alt-Right, and while Arthur Jones’ compelling documentary shows how Furie’s amphibian creation moves further and further away from its original intention as it became popular on 4Chan message boards as a reflection of white male resentment, Pepe is once again repurposed by the filmmakers for the more admirable goal of providing a sobering and comprehensive account of the spread of nihilistic ideas that led to the election of President Trump that is incredibly entertaining. The ability to graft multiple meanings onto Pepe speaks to what genius there is in what Furie created, though the artist himself hardly knows what that is, inadvertently crafting something aesthetically so crude and unsophisticated that it could be drawn by almost anyone, bearing that sentiment “Feels Good Man” that could be taken at face value or could echo libertarian views that one should do whatever one feels.

Furie is hardly comfortable with being cast as the central figure in either the context of the film or in the grander scope of things connected to Pepe, which gives “Feels Good Man” much of its narrative thrust, observing how an artist who wanted to withdraw from most things in society because of its divisiveness ended up caught in such a politically precarious position. But the filmmakers do strong work in recounting the many things culturally and technologically that enabled the rise of Pepe, from the Internet’s burgeoning embrace of memes and their commodification, the Trump campaign’s cultivation of an previously untapped voter base from 4Chan, and the shrewd yet cynical expectation that any nefarious messaging dressed up as humor will go unchallenged as a joke when in fact that quality can make it more effective. Jones interviews the right people to craft an insightful history, but with Pepe lending itself to animation, the director and a team of artists are able to find fun ways to illustrate the large-scale ideas at play as Pepe takes the world by storm.

“Feels Good Man” may strive a little too hard to find a happy ending where there may not be one, culminating in a case where Furie starts finally enforcing his copyright against the likes of InfoWars after years of dismissing the idea of lawsuits, although that could be argued as a reflection of the artist who appears to want to believe the best about people even when the evidence suggests otherwise. While this makes him perhaps the worst person the cultural reappropriation of Pepe the Frog could’ve happened to, it makes him an utterly fascinating subject to tell the story of how the dream of the Internet as a tool of connection has an equal capacity to divide.

“Feels Good Man” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 28th at 9 pm at the Temple Theatre in Park City, January 30th at 9 pm at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City, January 31st at 10 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City, and February 1st at 9 am at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City.