The Worst Filing System Known To Humans

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Reload the Canons!

This series of articles is an attempt to play through The Canon of videogames: your Metroids, your Marios, your Zeldas, your Pokemons, that kind of thing.

Except I'm not playing the original games. Instead, I'm playing only remakes, remixes, and weird fan projects. This is the canon of games as seen through the eyes of fans, and I'm going to treat fan games as what they are: legitimate works of art in their own right that deserve our analysis and respect.

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Feels Dumb Man: I Really, Really Hated The Pepe The Frog Documentary

"Feels Good Man" reveals a lot about how Pepe the Frog and its creator Matt Furie suck... accidentally. When faced with that inconvenient truth, the film and its audience will go to astonishing lengths to pretend our cultural grift economy is doing just fine.

Maybe this will be easier medicine to swallow if I start with some sugar.

Death of Pepe is a pretty funny comic, so straightforwardly so that it's a little hard to like... analyze. I'd even say it's about the barest economy of storytelling you can get. Matt Furie structures the comic with two establishing shots, one for the setting (the funeral of his famous creation, Pepe the Frog) and one for the characters (three of the other titular boys from his Boy's Club comics, bereaved). The second establisher panel also initiates the action, as the dude who looks like he should be a member of Dr Teeth and the Electric Mayhem unscrews his shitty hooch bottle. His panel where he toasts is setup for the action in the next two: him pouring, and the booze splashing pathetically onto Pepe's blue, dead face. The final panel serves as punchline and resolution to the action, showing the soggy results, Electric Mayhem drinking, and the other characters reacting with beleaguered and understated exasperation.


For me, it's the stasis, the relative lack of action, that makes the comic work as a joke. Panels 2 through 4 are practically identical but for the movements of Electric Mayhem, the other two characters just sort of staring in morose blankness. There's a sense in those panels that something really stupid is about to happen... but no one has the energy to stop it.

It's a tonally fitting end for Pepe, the Hillary Clinton Certified Fresh Hate Symbol. It already enjoyed one of the most asinine trajectories through culture imaginable, birthed from a random indie comic about stoner boys, transformed by the internet into an effectively public domain character adaptable to a wide variety of moods and circumstances, and finally appropriated as a symbol of Donald Trump's election triumph. I feel like a character being adopted by terminally online MAGA chuds--brownshirts mainly in the sense that they believe not knowing how to do laundry is Alpha--is as good a reason as any to derisively kill a character off, and drunkenly dump moonshine on his corpse. 

It's a funny, ironic, entertainingly depicted response to what is, ultimately, a series of very stupid events. Pepe has always been a dumb character in decently funny, dumb comics about guys being dudes. It's about what the subject deserves, and it shows the strength of Furie's style: simple and even simplistic, economical, just what it needs to be to get a chuckle as a piece flows past you in the social media content stream. It captures what made Pepe relevant in the first place: the ability to rapidly respond to events in a chaotic, copyright-oblivious environment with simple, pithy comics, images, and copypastas. Extracting Pepe from that context and pinning it down for a lengthy analysis in an article or say a documentary film, elevating it above its basically dumb origins and trajectory, does it and its potential audience a huge disservice.

That didn't stop someone from making a documentary about Pepe as the key to understanding Trumpism, of course. Obviously not.



Nor did the fundamental incoherence at the heart of Feels Good Man, Arthur Jones's documentary on Pepe and the 2016 election, stop critics from heaping adulation upon it. Personally, I hated it. Worst documentary I've ever seen. Not that anyone's aggregating MY opinion into the consensus slurry. Instrumentalize me daddy I want to be Tang. No, it doesn't matter what I think. The audience for the film--both the laity and the film festival crowd--went into the film with the best attitude a documentary could hope for. They already agreed with its core premise that Pepe and memes generally (even... FOREIGN memes??) had ultimate explanatory power for an otherwise incomprehensible failure of the system to just... work. Pepe can't just be a dumb frog, it has to be a work of art of significance, of GEOPOLITICAL significance! Jones constructs his film rhetorically to endorse this narrative, and helpfully takes the next step: transforming Pepe's creator Furie into a hero worthy of the moment, capable of striking back at the terrifying new practitioners of information warfare.

The fact that Matt Furie manifestly is NOT a man worthy of the moment, and Pepe IS just a dumb frog, drives every formal and philosophical contortion of the documentary.

Conveniently, the premise and the conclusion follow each other circularly. We already are meant to agree on who the bad guys in the film are, and can subsequently construct the good guys from there. Does it matter if there's a contradiction between the image of Furie as righteous warrior against Alex Jones and his ilk and Furie the schlubby dude who just seems annoyed by the whole farce? What about Pepe as the product of Furie's particular artistic genius and provenance, vs Pepe the genetic idea virus, product of a Darwinian process, one that Furie has basically nothing to do with? Or how about the righteous power of Intellectual Property Law, vs the actual art scene that birthed Boys Club, one of, ah how to put it delicately... serial fucking plagiarism?

The funny thing is, the film isn't technically wrong. Pepe could serve as an interesting case study of a fundamental breakdown, a symptom of a deeply unwell society. The problem is, the symptom of the illness, reflected in the mutually incompatible views of Furie and Pepe, calls into question a fundamental tenet of western orthodoxy for the last half century: that basically everything's fine, and free of contradictions. All these tensions and more are swept away by the film's construction, which freely pulls from either skeptics or mystics as it sees fit to construct not so much an argument as a pacifying dodge.

I think one of the greatest strengths of the film in terms of skating over contradiction comes from its formal posture of distance from the subject. The film assumes a journalistic affect. No voiceover from the director explains his position or offers his thoughts; no titles present information beyond bare minimum clarifying details (names of interviewees, locations, credentials in esoteric fields of study). This rhetorically positions the film as a kind of neutral accounting of events, as though the viewer is permitted to make up her own mind from the simple facts and interviews montaged. This is reality as it is, the film's structure implies. A centering of the director would imply that a director is in fact making choices according to some guiding logic, and that might cause us to question just what that guiding logic is, exactly.

This interview footage and b roll gets paired with animated sequences. Those dramatize the events of the film as though they are actually, like, happening to Pepe, and they follow an arc as Pepe is plunged into horror, transformed into a fascist icon, dies, and is reborn as the god Kek. Damn, maybe I should be writing about this in the context of my Pink Floyd's The Wall series. Anyway, Pink, er, Pepe thus gets humanized and characterized in a way that is suspiciously convenient to the campaign Furie engaged in to recover Pepe's brand, particularly because it reifies Pepe as a subject and obscures the brand. Questioning whether this is really all that bad, or whether it's appropriate at all to project horror onto a fictional cartoon character, is made to feel as inappropriate as questioning whether one of the crimes beloved by local news stations is worthy of disproportionate attention. Oh, and it also lends Furie's typically static art much more dynamism, which has also gotta be a branding plus.

Really, the film as a whole is astoundingly flattering to Furie and his art. Lots of shots of Furie in the toy store where he worked, Furie with his wife and kid... the film is positively saturated with b reel of wholesome moments. The effect paired with the faux neutral dissolving of the filmmakers into the background suggests an objective portrait of Furie as basically just a chill dude whose naivety and goodness let him be victimized. 

I, of course, a wretched midden ghoul without an ounce of human decency, found it all nauseatingly saccharine. 

Actually, specifically it felt a little try-hard. And they did have to try hard, cause there's glimpses in the film of a Furie that's not so much naive as negligent, not so much the victim of strange forces but a knowing participant who played with fire and got burned to the tune of more money than I've made in the last five years of my life. Furie at one point grouses that he got into art in the first place so he wouldn't have to pay attention to media or politics, because: "I don't give a shit about any of that stuff." A core part of our initial introduction to Furie is a shot of him being interviewed in a resale toy store where he apparently did inventory and otherwise just got to draw toys all day. "I basically just want to be young again," he says wistfully, gazing off into the distance for the camera. In these moments, Furie comes across like a real toolbag, just a real fucking dipshit. 


I came into the film biased, mind. I watched the film in the first place, knowing it would be insufferable, because Furie started doing what all toolbags do nowadays: he started selling NFTs. In the process of preparing to write about THAT I came across a rather interesting and enlightening interview from 2016. Matt Furie was asked by Atlantic writer and resistance lib Adam Serwer what he thought of the whole "Pepe hate symbol" thing. Furie didn't seem to give a shit, frankly:

"I don’t have any regrets about anything. I do my own thing, and if anything, it’s been kind of interesting to see all the evolutions of Pepe. Yeah, no regrets."

Cool, man. His attitude? Pepe might be a hate symbol today and a school mascot tomorrow, and it's fine if people use it. Whatever! He even seems aware of how the meme's popularity let him promote himself, mentioning the shirts he intends to sell with various redraws of Pepe on them. "Bootlegs of bootlegs," he characterizes them, acknowledging the influence of meme artists on his own "little enterprising things".

The mention of merch is interesting, because in the film Furie laments having to burn it all.

See, two months after the interview Trump got elected president, and the Anti-Defamation League took time out from its busy schedule of defaming anti-Apartheid activists or just Muslims in general to write an entire thing about how Pepe is a Nazi. Furie had a bunch of merchandise on his hands that he couldn't sell. Now. Far be it for me to suggest that it is the $45,000 of t-shirts in Matt Furie's garage that prompted a change of heart, but SOMETHING sure prompted an about face on the seriousness of this fascist "hijacking". So complete is Matt's change of heart that the Atlantic interview gets mentioned explicitly in the film, and Adam Serwer even shows up to declaim on the sinister, threatening nature of these memes. Matt was naive, Serwer emphasizes. He just didn't see that memes threatened the integrity of the Republic through the sinister tactic of "being a dumb cartoon frog that makes you look completely fucking ludicrous when you claim it's threatening the Republic". He gets it now though. Trust us.

Are you ready for the shitty twist? The whole reason I went into the movie knowing about this specific interview where Furie comes across as an equivocating dipshit is because I saw the article reposted this month on Twitter. Specifically, I saw it scrolling through Matt Furie's twitter. Cause Matt Furie posted it (archive). And you know how he summarized the contents?

"our journalist bro was really fishing, but I held my ground and focused on the good stuff. Vibes are important, life is too short to dwell in the dungeon. let's all be free together."

🙂

If Furie comes across less like a crusading knight and more like a slimy mercenary, Pepe comes across, for all the film's histrionics, less as a singular holy relic and more as a dirty joke scrawled on a bathroom stall. I don't think it's on purpose, but that characterization of Pepe as an upgraded version of dirty graffiti, the oldest form of memes there is, does sync with the film's strangely Darwinian approach to Pepe's popularity. Considerable time is dedicated to trotting out Richard Dawkins's positivist fever dream of the "meme" as genetic code for, like, human civilization, man. In this view, Pepe is remarkably powerful specifically because it's been shared and remixed so much. 

The film shows total disinterest in the implications of this. You might think it'd prompt some serious reconsideration of the whole idea of "the artist" right, but, nope. There's a few interviews with Pepe meme creators, one a reactionary chud asshole and another a couple of vaguely alt cis chicks. There's some clips from Instagram of people talking about the meme. Whatever. It goes nowhere and says nothing, not really, because none of these people are really like, people to the creators of this movie. Not like Matt Furie is! Matt Furie does art. These people post memes. It's different. 

People who post memes, unlike Artistes like Matt, are best understood as a sociological phenomenon. So, they get an Expert in digital culture to explain that "Pepe the sad frog" is a reaction to how the corporatized internet demands user positivity. This annoyed me. In my notes I actually complained bitterly about the vagueness of this statement, its inability to pin down dates (when did the internet become corporate and positive?) relevant subcultures (is there a disillusioned instragram positivity blogger to channer pipeline?) or persons of interest (who corporatized the internet?). I wrote those notes before I saw the rest of the film, though. In retrospect, it was the last interesting point anyone made in the entire film. Because once you begin talking about this, suddenly the conversation shifts and changes. 

Predictable: it's the one time Pepe appears as it is in reality, i.e., a byproduct of larger forces. The rest of the film, whether through Dawkins or dark arts, presupposes Pepe's dark sway over American electoral politics. When oriented the other way, when these "offensive memes" are seen as symptomatic of wider social forces, the election properly gets situated as well, as a sideshow. To the story of Pepe, I mean. 

Instead of endlessly fixating on this one event, we could start talking about all sorts of interesting things. Like, oh, the way social media, the entire tech industry in point of fact, really is sort of constructed on theft of intellectual property, bootlegs of bootlegs to use Furie's words. Who was actually benefiting from the transmission of all those memes? Financially, I mean. I don't know the finances of 4chan and don't care to look them up, but certainly Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and Reddit all draw their views, their ad revenue, their ability to amass a wide userbase whose information they can collect and sell to the highest bidder, from user content. Much of it is reshared, remixed, appropriated, subverted, and bootlegged content. You know, memes.

If you wanted to draw geopolitical lessons from this, you might question how such a perversely copyright-dominated social order's biggest winners are tech companies reliant on bootleg culture. You might start to wonder if humans fit so easily into a legal, economic, and ideological regime that treats ideas as property, and thinkers as noble landlords. Rather than reconcile that contradiction with another layer of ideology, concluding that these idea landlords are entitled to corvee labor, indeed that there's an almost spiritual duty to labor for these artists to maintain the Brand, we could ask who this contradictory status quo benefits. 

It might even be a good idea to ask whether less diseased culture would emerge from a state of affairs not rejecting its own transplanted organs. Whether a society dedicated to something, fucking ANYTHING other than the endless grinding extraction of value from the masses, while shrouding the Frankenstein debasements in bandages of ideology and mystification, might never have produced the Alt Right in the first place. God, they're just so fucking incurious! These filmmakers want a tidy story and they got one and they gave it to an audience that swallowed it whole, gangrene and all. But the real story lies at the ragged border where the organs of the rhetoric and the ideology don't incorporate.

Ragged borders like the other two sides of Furie: the singular artist and idea landlord, vs the guy that emerged from another earlier iteration of the exact same millieu as meme artists. See, Furie was always a culture jammer, a bootlegger, part of a stoner scene that delighted in adopting popular figures and styles and art and repurposing them as adult party motifs. He's not, like, the new R Crumb, regardless of his bdsm chicken semen milking art (archive). But he is part of a scene that has a parodic and bootlegged approach to popular culture, particularly popular corporate icons.

There's a whole sequence in the film that I just don't understand, actually. Like, it's bewildering to me that it's in here at all considering how it undercuts the film's theses, and it's strange to me that it seems to have worked just fine with the critical audience. Maybe it just comes across as, I don't know, an acknowledgment that Furie isn't perfect? Maybe the manichaean conflict of the scene between Furie and the reviled Alex Jones is enough to get everyone to just ignore it, to see Furie as intrinsically the victimized protagonist here? Jones is, after all, a huge piece of shit who did appropriate Pepe for merch, and it's impossible not to find him getting slapped with a lawsuit over it a LITTLE funny.

And yet... the content of the deposition videos included in the documentary is really clear. Furie's a hypocrite at best, a plagiarist at worst. The scene comes early on in Furie's triumphant series of victories over the alt right in the courts. Furie and Jones are both filmed head on as lawyers interrogate them. In intercut scenes taken after the deposition, Furie laments how forceful the lawyer was, how intense the interrogation was, how he misspoke under pressure. In the scenes themselves, the lawyer simply asks, over and over: isn't this someone else's character in your art? Isn't this Big Bird? Grimace? The Hamburgler? Isn't this someone else's intellectual property in this art you sell? The lawyer never makes the point directly, but it hangs in the air:

What after all is the difference between Alex Jones and Matt Furie? Aren't they doing the exact same thing?


This is the contradiction the film can't resolve. If Furie is to be the hero using ideas landlord law to save his creation, Furie has to be a singular artist. Furie must be an auteur, whose moral right to copy has been infringed upon. More than that, that his moral right to preserve the brand i.e. dictate how his character is used has been infringed upon.

But Furie's creativity is specifically contingent on his use of remix and countercultural jamming techniques. His whole like, fuckin, thing as an artist is being part of stoner culture, drawing toys, drawing pot leaf versions of big bird renamed "big bud" (archive), you know. What genius is there is entirely derivative of the pop and counterculture in which he floats on an enormous colorful bong cloud.

Here's the fuckin thing. I don't have a problem with that. My own work is certainly pastiche, I just use art history as my source instead of McDonalds commercials. No, what pisses me off is that the film can't pick a side. Is Furie a unique auteur or is he just part of a whole field of social production? Is Pepe so good because Furie's so good, or is it because Darwinian evolution in ideaspace allowed Pepe to spread and change to forms more fit to the contemporary web? The film's entire argument about Furie rests on this fundamental contradiction: that Furie is both responsible and not responsible for Pepe the frog as a cultural entity.

So I guess what really gets to me, what really ticks me off, is the way the film makes me agree with a Trump campaign coms guy. The guy--I didn't bother remembering or looking up his name, just picture an ostrich egg perched on top of a preppy suit and you'll get the basic picture--does an interview in response to Furie's lawsuits. He points out that Furie created a character that can be drawn easily by an 8 year old, and that Pepe's the result of a whole "community" creating memes. He also says Furie should be happy to be part of history, which is asinine. Like I said, the Death of Pepe comic is about the most reasonable response an artist could have to all this. But I hate hate hate that I can't disagree with anything else this fascist jock itch says about Pepe's quality, and I hate that he's the only person in the film who points out that Furie's just not a great artist.

The worst part is that the film actually agrees with this guy and his fellow chuds on a much deeper and more deranged level. I keep dropping hints about this but I can't hold back anymore. We've got to talk about the film's central conclusion, its core thesis, its ultimate point of agreement with every basement dwelling channer.

Memes are literal actual magic.

Yep. The film actually argues that a bunch of NEETs used literal chaos magic to get Donald Trump elected. Maybe it's ok though, because meme magic can also be used by The Good Guys to fight against Tyranny. We too can harness Pepe's avatar as the god Kek, but as good rather than evil battlemages of the psychosphere.

Listen. It gives me no pleasure to tell you all this. I hate that I'm writing it, partly because I am frustratedly rotating in my mind the vision of a reader who says, "oh now SURELY that's an unfair characterization. There's no way the film LITERALLY argues that memes are LITERAL magic spells. Is there?"


Fuck you. They interviewed a wizard. Repeatedly. He has more interview segments than the Dawkins acolytes for god's sake! They even managed somehow to get a chaos magician who ISN'T EVEN A COOL ANARCHIST CHAOS MAGICIAN like Grant Morrison or Alan Moore, he's a fucking self described "Burkean conservative!" The creators seem in awe of John Michael Greer, who has grifted his way into a number of documentaries about memes. He's an actual recognized arch-druid with hierarchical power, Jones informs his interviewer wonderingly.

Yep. Implausible as it seems, the thesis of the film is that Pepe is a fucking hypersigil that won Donald Trump the primary and presidency. Because the same people patting themselves on the back because they "believe science" literally find it easier to become chaos magicians than accept Hillary Clinton ran a historically dogshit electoral campaign. Anyway, if all our elections happen on the psychosphere mindplane it's ok if we don't do things like try to organize immigrant workers or go door to door in swing states or make any appeal at all to young left wing voters. Nah. We just have to post! We will post so damn hard that we overthrow tyranny and change the world.

And it's this line of thought that leads the film to a conclusion, and a montage cut, so astoundingly ludicrous and offensive that I howled at my computer.


aaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!!

So it's just like I said. We're the fucking peasants working the land to grow rich, healthy memes that will help free Hong Kong from Chinese tyranny, the US from Cheeto tyranny, and perhaps even the world from the tyranny of bad vibes. Instead of letting dead Pepes lie, letting a dumb story end in funny ignominy, various artists have a moral imperative to participate in a rebranding: Pepe as a symbol of love and peace. Good vibes, you know? From the perspective that ideas are sorta like land and sorta like actual people, Furie's been vandalized, and Pepe's been kidnapped. It's the job of artists, and the courts, to make it right.

From the perspective of the labor of cultural production, though, Furie has managed to make heavy use not just of the labor of everyone who contributed to the discursive presence of Big Bird or the Hamburgler, but of Pepe itself. Pepe's saleable value, now codified in NFTs, derives from the whole discursive and creative labor of everyone who ever painted a rare Pepe, or even just reshared one. And as soon as MORE labor had been done by liberals to create a "movement" to "save Pepe", he began repudiating his own repudiation, winking to the chud audience that always waited in the wings ready to buy pepes again. Furie's positioned himself so that he can sell to them while also selling to the trendy indie comic set and appearing in galleries. The film is constantly going into fits of moral horror at the ironic use of memes, how evil and insidious it is that white nationalist content could also be, you know, stupid to look at. Yet Furie's whole business model depends on the same exact irony, being able to seem on the surface just dumb cartoons while also fundamentally appealing, by the delivery mechanism of blockchain nonsense and by use of Pepe as a character, to the people the film and its audience hates. 

I guess I have to wonder to myself, would everyone have gotten so fucking fleeced by Furie if they had more interest in our contradictory understanding of art and artists? I feel like the film wouldn't turn into such an image management exercise for Furie if they didn't feel so obligated to find The Creator Of The Meme, elevate him above every other person posting pictures on the internet, and invest in him superheroic capacity, if we all help charge his Spirit Bomb, to defeat various villains. 

For all the documentary distance of the film's form, Jones might've benefited from less investment in an already decided upon narrative. He certainly doesn't seem to be aware at all of the contradictions at play, or incoherencies in his own actions as an artist. After all, in the credits of this film all about a heroic artist taking back control of his creation through the power of Copyright, the filmmakers include this credits section for the countless memes displayed in the film:


Yep. They literally just reposed a bunch of images with, effectively, "credit to the artist" and called it a day. The moral rights of the creators of those memes just don't matter.

After all, it's just funny pictures online.

Isn't it?

This Has Been

Feels Dumb Man

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2 comments:

  1. Oh god. How are conservative chaos magicians a thing? I don't know what's going to haunt me for longer: that knowledge, or the phrase "Instrumentalize me daddy I want to be Tang."

    I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a Pepe documentary would ultimately be a self-condemning shitshow.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Aimlessly bitter review and a nearly incomprehensible misread of the film.

    "Worst documentary I've ever seen"? Have you seen like, two documentaries?

    "What after all is the difference between Alex Jones and Matt Furie? Aren't they doing the exact same thing?" No? What?

    ReplyDelete

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