By the time I ever heard of or laid eyes upon the cartoon character known as Pepe the Frog, created by artist Matt Furie, the character was already firmly entrenched as an alt-right symbol of an army of anti-establishment, internet-trolling, meme-making types who cut and pasted the frog’s half-smiling, stoner-eyed face into some of the most horrific scenarios imaginable to push forth their sexist, racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic beliefs (shockingly enough, they also take credit for getting Donald Trump elected in 2016, which may be partially true). But the documentary Feels Good Man (based on a famous and completely innocent line spoken by Pepe) isn’t so much about how the frog character was hijacked and used as a rallying point for Beta Males and other political babies; instead, the feature debut by Arthur Jones is about Furie’s struggle with being the person who created Pepe and the step he took to wrench control of his creation back in order to use him for good once again.
Furie envisions himself a children’s book writer and cartoonist who had been drawing this unnamed frog character since he was a kid. Finally he included Pepe in the Boys Club comic book, featuring four old friends living together and their slacker adventures. And even though I just watched the movie, it’s still a bit of a mystery just how Pepe first got noticed and why someone decided he was the rallying point behind whom anonymous internet types would create memes and other imagery to help get our current president elected. Furie didn’t really get much blowback from being Pepe’s creator, since most people understood that the character had been taken over. But when he did actively start to push back and sue people for using the image for profit, the hate mail and veiled death threats started coming in.
The investigative work done by Jones and his team is impressive, and gives us almost more examples of how Pepe was warped than our eyes can take in. The winner of the U.S. Documentary Special Jury Award for Emerging Filmmaker at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Feels Good Man might be considered surreal and darkly comical if what we were seeing didn’t turn out so devastatingly bad for the world at large. The deep and ugly rabbit holes that Jones takes us down are enough to make us even more paranoid and afraid to leave the house than we already are, and Furie sinks so far down into despair at times, that we’re eternally grateful that this clearly very kind and well-meaning person continues to fight the good fight, sometimes directly (like when he took Alex Jones to court for selling a poster that featured alt-right heroes including Pepe).
The film is one of the better examples of just how fast and brutal internet behavior can create a frenzy and spread that madness like wildfire. But the film is also a reminder that sometimes symbols that mean one thing to one group can mean something utterly different to another, as a closing scene explains that the Pepe image has become a symbol of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, where he’s often depicted as a first responder, complete with a hard hat and protective mask. Again, how this began seems like a mystery, but no one seems happier about this turn of events than Matt Furie.
The film is now available via VOD.
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