“What do you think people get wrong about Pepe?” asks director Arthur Jones, as the camera watches artist Matt Furie draw a happy-looking frog cartoon.
“Probably when they put Pepe on the internet saying things like, ‘Kill Jews,’” Furie responds.
Pepe is a chill, fun-loving frog character in a nostalgic comic strip. Pepe is a communal symbol of sadness and online loneliness. Pepe is a joke that can be passed around with friends. Pepe is a reactionary tool used to dispel hate speech under the guise of irony. All of these truths exist together, as they represent Pepe — a cartoon frog character — through the evolutionary stages of its internet life. The absurd way this simple image became so distorted from its original purpose over time that it eventually became an explicit symbol of neo-Nazis is explored in “Feels Good Man,” the debut project of director Jones and producer Giorgio Angelini, presented in virtual format by the Virginia Film Festival last week.
At the center of this story is Furie — a laid-back cartoonist who originated the image of Pepe the frog as a character for his 90s-style slacker comedy comic strip “Boy’s Club” in 2005. The character’s relationship with the internet began innocently, when Furie posted a comic strip to MySpace. In the comic, Pepe defends the practice of pulling his pants all the way down to pee because it “feels good, man.” This image and catchphrase became co-opted by different niche sub-groups for years and was moved further and further from its original context, until it eventually landed in the hands of various reactionary, neo-Nazi political groups.
Through the eyes of Furie, the audience can see how disorienting and deeply upsetting it can be to have an artistic work snowball so far out of one’s control. Early in the film, Furie’s partner Aiyana Udesen says that Pepe has been his “go-to thing to draw” for as long as she has known him. One of his friends even says that the frog “kinda looks like Matt.” The journey of having something that is so essentially linked to your identity perverted into something unrecognizable is the tragedy of Furie’s tale, and it anchors the documentary in a moving way.
One unique component of the film is the way it electrifies classic documentary formats with vibrant, almost psychedelic animated sequences. These scenes are clearly visually stunning, but they also get at the core of the film’s themes in a fascinating visual manner. The beautiful sequences of Furie’s Boy’s Club characters hanging out and going on adventures breathes new life into the art that was ripped away from him. These fun pieces that are seen throughout the film exist in stark contrast to the strange visuals that showcase Pepe’s existence on the internet, which are glitchy and even akin to a kind of cyber-horror. Placing Furie’s Pepe in juxtaposition to the strange force he has become online is how the documentary presents Furie’s work as corrupted by the alien and often menacing force of the Internet.
Something that cannot be ignored in this film is its political immediacy. The symbolism surrounding Pepe and other reactionary in-jokes have seen a lot of public attention lately, but they can seem confusing upon first glance. Why should someone worry about President Trump posting a picture of himself as a strange frog meme? Because these images are so layered in “ironic” crypticism, most onlookers do not understand the implications of them. This creates an in-group language amongst the self-described “alt-right” that enforces their connections to one another, while also shielding their violent intentions under the guise of everything being “just a joke.”
Many of the talking heads of the film are political commentators and journalists who cover the white supremacist groups, and they emphasize the ways that these groups utilize memes and goofy-sounding phraseology to cover up the severity of what they are trying to do. The way Pepe was hijacked is a huge part of what modern political radicalization looks like. It starts as an “edgy” way to make fun of the “mainstream” and quickly diverges into disturbing territory. As a documentary, “Feels Good Man” brings a
beneficial level of accessibility to these political discussions, explaining internet phenomena like “memes” and “4chan” in ways that are engaging for older audience members and younger internet natives alike.
The level of humor in this film is in some ways to be expected — it’s about a cartoon frog. The absurdity of its concept mostly goes without saying. But amongst all of the darker elements of Furie’s story, this levity is a refreshing component of the film. Some of the funniest moments come when Furie suits up to take on notorious right-wing conspirator Alex Jones in court for using Pepe the frog on merchandise. Furie is shown being questioned by investigators in a rather aggressive manner, but he maintains a sense of humor through it all — such as when he’s asked to explain the origins of the name Pepe and has to respond that he liked how it “sounded like Pee-Pee” under oath. In a movie that so terrifyingly shows the way so-called humor is used as a masquerade for messages of hate, seeing someone like Furie — whose work has been so misconstrued by the “alt-right” — reminds the audience how genuinely uplifting humor can be when used for good.
The screening of “Feels Good Man” at the Virginia Film Festival was followed by a panel discussion with Arthur Jones and Giorgio Angelini, moderated by University media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan, whose research concerns the various impacts of social media on our democracy. The most telling message of the short panel conversation came in Angelini’s closing remarks.
“This film is really about love and empathy, and that people don’t have to feel like the Internet is controlling or shaming them out of their capacity for empathy and understanding,” Angelini said.
The hope of this message materializes in the film’s ending, which brings a surprisingly celebratory conclusion to this tale — guaranteed to leave anyone who sees it awe-struck.