Feels Good Man


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Feels Good Man
"They say a story can grow legs and, here, it does that and then hops off in surprising directions - taking us on a journey not just into the world of memes and their manipulation but also into considerations of 'ownership' and misappropriation." | Photo: Kurt Keppeler and Christian Bruno

In hindsight, it seems appropriate that Matt Furie's creation Pepe - just one, it must be noted, of many characters the cartoonist has drawn down the years - would be a frog, because his metamorphosis has been nothing short of astounding. They say a story can grow legs and, here, it does that and then hops off in surprising directions - taking us on a journey not just into the world of memes and their manipulation but also into considerations of 'ownership' and misappropriation.

Even if you're not a big user of social media, there's a good chance you've come across Pepe in one form or another - and you can see how he looked in the first instance at the top of this review. As Furie puts it, he was "a happy little frog". That was back when he was part of a cast of characters in Furie's comic book series Boy's Club - a collection of four "post-college zone" slackers also including Brett, Andy and a hirsute chap named Landwolf. Pepe's name, along with his catchphrase, "Feels good man" stemmed, as is the way of this sort of humour, from the toilet. The name, a play on "pee-pee" and the phrase uttered when he explains to a friend why he drops his trousers and pants completely to the floor while relieving himself. Stuff so innocuous, you wouldn't have bet on him becoming an internet meme at all - Furie most certainly didn't - let alone going on to become an emblem of the alt-right.

It is, as they say, quite a trip. And it's to director Arthur Jones' credit that he takes you on it without getting incredibly lost. With animated segments illustrating something of the emotional rollercoaster Furie went on - with Pepe and his pals as his surrogate - Jones gently takes us by the hand and shows us not just the evolution of Pepe but of social media and, for the uninitiated, don't worry, he also explains the nature of memes along the way. The editing from Drew Blatman, Katrina Taylor and Aaron Wickenden, is particularly noteworthy as there are a lot of Pepe memes and vlog spin-offs to deal with in between the talking heads and animation but they offer solid context at the right moments without becoming overwhelming.

First it was the catchphrase, that seemed to take off with bodybuilders on MySpace, but it was the advent of internet "imageboard" 4chan - essentially a forum that revolves around images and, therefore, the perfect breeding ground for memes - that Pepe basically went rogue. 4chan - which down the years has been a magnet for controversy - was essentially a place where you could "own your loserdom" as one contributor here puts it. Posts have the advantage of anonymity and Pepe, no longer looking quite such a happy little frog, became a sort of poster child for people embracing the fact they were not in education, employment or training (is that NEET, or what?).

All this cartoon Darwinism was happening, while Furie looked on fairly benevolently, he's a soft-spoken guy and hands-on dad who didn't particularly want to get heavy about the use of the image and even saw the popularity as an opportunity to make a bit of cash with some merchandise. And what happens next illustrates not only how intellectual property can be seized by others to such a degree you have no control at all but also the way that some parts internet, fuelled by anonymity, began to lean towards unpleasant ideas, particularly misogyny. Women began to get in on the Pepe posting act - including stars like Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry - and when those 4chan bros saw their territory threatened, they wanted Pepe back and started to make him as offensive as possible.

That marks the tip of a large and nasty iceberg, and Jones' film - which won a Special Jury prize after its premiere at Sundance and is now showing at Fantasia 2020 - becomes increasingly fascinating as he shows how the ripples from this shift spread out. As Pepe began to sink towards the swamp, Donald Trump was on the rise and became what many of the 4channers came to view as "a real life version of Pepe". Trump became a cause celebre for nihilists looking to mess with the system and Pepe went from sad to "smug" and "Nazified" - perhaps most chillingly of all, this plays out as much like a game as it does anything politically motivated, the 4channers, like Trump, seeing things only in terms of winners and losers.

Jones drills down into all this, at the same time as keeping an eye on Furie who, on discovering just how bad things had got, finally decided it was time to fight back and began to start suing for his rights over the image, leading to a stand-off with Infowars' Alex Jones. The director is comprehensive, showing how quickly these things can get out of control, while also giving a quick lesson in cryptocurrency transactions along the way. That Pepe had one more metamorphosis up his sleeve came as a surprise to everyone - although after watching this fascinating documentary, perhaps nothing will surprise you any more.

Reviewed on: 01 Sep 2020
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When indie comic character Pepe the Frog becomes an unwitting icon of hate, his creator, artist Matt Furie, fights to bring Pepe back from the darkness and navigate America's cultural divide.

Director: Arthur Jones

Writer: Giorgio Angelini, Matt Furie, Arthur Jones, Aaron Wickenden

Year: 2020

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: US

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