Theres no shortage of documentaries about our current political climate or the fact that the Internet might be bad, but Feels Good Man focuses on the craziest intersection of these two modern realities: Pepe, the cartoon frog.
If youre aware of Pepe already, chances are its because the character has become synonymous with the alt-right, that extreme online demographic tied to modern white supremacists and Nazi movements. Or perhaps you heard of Pepe before that, during the time this frog had become the meme du jour of 4chan, the anonymous message board associated with all sorts of nefarious real-world behavior. Though Pepe's most high-profile 15 minutes of fame were inarguably a cameo on then-candidate Donald Trumps Twitter feed, leading to the characters adoption by some of his most extreme supporters, like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Feels Good Man will get to all that, of course, but this documentary starts with the now-toxic toads tadpole days. By doing so, the film will likely show viewers something they didnt know or hadnt previously considered regardless of prior familiarity with Pepe and the insanity swirling around him. And through tracing Pepes evolution, Feels Good Man manages to remind everyone of a fundamental truth of communication, particularly in the Internet age. Once you click send on something, things like original intent and context might become as ephemeral as a single tweet.
A film that truly understands Internet
While ostensibly marketed on the festival circuit as “the Pepe doc,” Feels Good Man actually has another central figure: Matt Furie, a Bay Area comics artist. Back in the days where MySpace existed, he created a Gen X-ish group of animal friends existing in perpetual post-college slackerdom for a series called Boy's Club. Furies lifelong frog fandom led to an amphibian named Pepe becoming one of the comics lead foursome. “Feels Good Man,” the phrase, has been literally lifted from Pepes mundane adventures, particularly the one where he discovered how nice it felt to pee standing up with your pants removed entirely.
The documentary thoroughly and exhaustively documents things chronologically from here. Youll see early Boy's Club comics Furie drew in the back of a San Francisco thrift store, posts documenting how Pepe became the preferred badge of self-deprecating irony on 4chan, or a mountain of Pepe merch Furie once had produced but cant in good conscience give away or sell these days. While walking viewers through all of that, Feels Good Man seems remarkably smart about identifying turning points for the cartoonist and the character he once controlled. It's quite evident Director Arthur Jones deeply understands how culture can snowball in between disparate Internet communities until it becomes too big for society at large to ignore. Maybe Trump retweeting a Pepe meme is an obvious touchstone in retrospect, but this film gives equal weight to moments such as weightlifters displaying a fondness for the frog or eventual shares from celebs like Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj.
“When 4chan wanted to defend its memes, theyd make them as offensive as possible so they couldnt be co-opted, see Pepe with 9/11 or Nazi messaging for instance,” Dale Beran, an author who studied 4chan, says in the film. “Back then, it was just the most offensive thing you could do. But it now reads as a weird prologue to when the irony melted away.”
Feels Good Man stays riveting because of the variety of interviews Jones conducted. Furie participates to the fullest, as does his partner and close friends (one of whom got a Pepe tattoo back in the early days ). So do other illustrators from projects as big as BoJack Horseman to lend credence to Furies ability and work. But the same holistic approach gets applied to voices examining Pepes Internet evolution—scholars like Beran who study memes, people who go by one-name handles like Mills or Pizza during their extensive 4chan experiences, and the freakin director of strategy for the “Trump 2016” campaign all appear. These folks understand the Internet in ways Furie only could once it became too late.
“[We analyzed] over one billion posts across Twitter, reddit, /pol/ and 160 million images just from one year,” Jeremy Blackburn, a data scientist who looks at weird online behavior and wanted to take a “quantitative look at hate speech throughout the Web,” tells Furie in the film. “There tends to be a Pepe variance in every cluster—you pick a random meme, and Pepe has been inserted in some form. Pepe becomes an entry point to radicalization.”
Feels Good Man ultimately finds Furie at a point where enough is enough—he has finally sought out legal aid in recent years to try to fight back against some of the most egregious and offensive uses of his slacker frog. He fought Infowars and won (Alex Jones had to pay a settlement and stop selling a poster showing Pepe in an Avengers-like squad alongside figures like President Trump). Furie fought a known anti-Muslim cartoonist and won (that guy wanted to write a “childrens book” called Pepe and Pede as a trojan horse for bad ideas). The list goes on and includes reprehensible white supremacy opportunists, from The Daily Stormer to Richard Spencer. In total, Furies legal help at WilmerHale says it successfully enforced Pepe copyrights against nearly 100 entities “connected to images or messages of hate” at the time of this documentary.
But Furie naively still thinks his character can be salvaged in societys eye. He seems to view one particular battle as the way to do it: in 2016, the Anti-Defamation League officially added Pepe to its list of known symbols of hate. If the frog can finally be removed, Furie appears to think, that would restore the original, wholesome idea of Pepe once and for all. Watching this unattainable goal drive Furie through all kinds of efforts (including a formal Boy's Club funeral for the Pepe they knew), Feels Good Man plays like a post-modern horror. In real (run)time, you watch the worst impulses of the Internet rain down again and again on someone who just doesn't comprehend what he's up against. “I didnt even know what a meme was," Furie admits at one point. "I still dont even know if Im saying it correctly. It was through Pepe that I learnedRead More – Source