Fantasia Fest 2020: Many were confused when an image of a cute cartoon frog was retweeted by Donald Trump. For Trump’s followers from 4chan and the alt-right, this simple gesture was one of empowered. The meme/cartoon, known as Pepe the Frog, had been a viral sensation over the previous decade. In the months leading up to the election, Trump supporters co-opted him as a symbol of disruption. Despite the popularity of the meme, few know the story of artist and children’s author Matt Furie. He created Pepe as a character in his web-comic Boy’s Club, which gained an underground following. When memes of the character began to circulate the internet, he lost control of his own creation. Feels Good, Man chronicles Furie’s journey to save his creation. Through the use of animation, archival footage, and testimonials from a diverse collective, Feels Good, Man becomes an endlessly engaging and energetic documentary through the dark side of the internet.
To understand Pepe as both symbol and creation, Feels Good Man explores his linear evolution from creation to icon. Director Arthur Jones creates an empathetic portrait of Furie early in the film. Furie is portrayed as a happy-go-lucky, sensitive artist. As we discover more about Furie, we inherently learn more about Pepe. Exploring Furie’s state of mind and motivations when creating Pepe and his web comic, Boy’s Club lays a foundation for why Pepe became such a sensation.
On its face, Pepe is not an overly complex creation, which helped aid those who wished to repurpose the frog. On top of that, his aesthetic is both weird but calming for those feeling anxiety. A character that draws in an audience because of his inherent empathy quickly becomes dangerous when repurposed by those with ill-intent. Good-hearted internet uses found comfort in Pepe. However, so did some users who were angry with the world. Jones gains access to some of these users, who help to explain the psyche of the movement. Jones’ camera has its own empathy, never attempting to mock his interview subjects for how they live their lives. Instead, he effectively uses diverse voices on the internet to tell the story of Pepe from those who revere him.
As Pepe’s role as a symbol evolves, he becomes a prime example of Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” essay. In the essay, he argues that when a creator releases content to the world, he know longer owns its meaning. Watching Furie attempt to cope with this is difficult, especially as he reveals he just wanted to write books for kids. To add to his anguish, the Anti-Defamation League’s labels Furie’s creation as a hate symbol. Pepe may come from humble beginnings, but by the time conservative commentator Alex Jones put his face on a poster, Furie’s protests and all but ignored.
For Furie, you can see the anguish and frustration on his face. Jones captures Furie’s genuine optimism and belief in the good of people. It makes it all the harder to watch his family and friends struggle to keep his spirits up. Pepe created a genuine outlet for Furie, one that could have led to financial stability. Yet his decisions to prioritize good over hate make him all the more admirable figure. It’s easy to become skeptical of those who create solely for the purpose of money. Yet the portrait of Furie created by Jones makes him a sympathetic and tragic figure worthy of examination.
Juxtaposed against Furie’s legal battles to reclaim Pepe are some incredible interviews with some unusual voices. Jones ties in commentators from academia to explain memes to the layman, but also provide complex explanations for what has occurred. His greatest triumph is the interviews with those who own embrace NEET culture, 4chan, and PepeBucks. Each provides stunning testimonials that are jaw-dropping in their isolation but help color the digital world with a fine-tipped toothbrush. If you were to write a story about the internet, these subcultures are undeniably part of it but remain completely unknown to the general public.
At no point does Jones make the false claim that Pepe directly led to the rise of Trump, but he makes a strong case for why the cult figure of Trump mobilized a corner of the internet. Those rallying cries spilled out of 4chan into popular culture and eventually to Trump himself. It motivated a group of supporters that have become his most fervent supporters. Perhaps scariest of all, this relatively small group of commentators and posters have the resources and time to flood the internet with pro-Trump materials, which in turn strengthens the materials for conservative commentators and voters. The site, meant to give refuge for those alienated by society became a breeding ground for disillusionment and moral ambiguity. The effect that has had on society is a book we’re still writing, and Jones acknowledges as much.
Feels Good, Man certainly stretches the documentary art form. In addition to viral videos and talking heads, Jones blends in animation to add depth to Pepe himself. The adaptation of several Boys Clubs comics helps create tangible connections to Pepe and helps to isolate him from his internet persona. While the animation segments are often slower, this is necessary to help us take a breath from the breakneck and energetic tone from much of the film. Piecing together Pepe’s coverage from so many sources can create sensory overload at times, but Jones wisely builds to those moments when the story necessitates. He has total control over where the source material will take us at any minute, and it helps Feels Good, Man stand out amongst the documentary crowd.
One of the more savvy political and pop culture documents of the past few years, Feels Good, Man elegantly handles the rise of Pepe the meme. A frustrating, but a genuinely hopeful tale, Jones never lets the purpose of his doc out of sight. Ultimately, Furie is a principled artist, looking to create some good in the world. However Pepe has been used, there is a hope that he can be reclaimed by those who used him as a symbol of hope and empathy.
What do you think of Feels Good, Man? Let us hear your thoughts below!
The 2020 Fantasia Film Festival is running virtually from August 20th through September 2nd, 2020.
All images are courtesy of the Fantasia Film Festival and the filmmakers.