Back in 2005, American cartoonist Matt Furie created the popular webcomic, Boy’s Club. A re-creation of his halcyon days with his college roommates, Boy’s Club was composed of deadpan comic vignettes of 4 anthropomorphic humanoid animals and their slack, mischievous stoner lifestyles. The comic became an overnight sensation with users on Myspace and 4chan, with one character in this comical quartet soon becoming a very prevalent and subsequently dangerous internet meme.
Named after the amphibious cartoon’s signature catchphrase uttered when he urinates with his pants all the way down to his ankles, Feels Good, Man is a deep dive into the history of Pepe the Frog. Director Arthur Jones follows a treacherous and shocking journey into how this wholesome and silly little doodle was co-opted and appropriated into an alt-right mascot of white supremacy, resulting in Pepe being labeled as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. In an extensive history lesson of the horrors of NEET culture (No Employment, Education, or Training) and the blind, hate-fuelled toxicity of 4chan, Feels Good, Man also examines how all this carnage affected Matt Furie. Growing frustrated and angry of being a spectator to his creation’s violent mutation, Furie takes action in a bid to reclaim Pepe as a symbol of love and compassion.
Taking out the U.S Documentary Jury Prize for Emerging Filmmaker at Sundance, Feels Good, Man is a brilliant study on how the internet can take something so innocent and harmless like a cartoon frog and transform it into a mechanism of virtual evil. The sad image of Pepe initially becomes emblematic of the feelings of members in the 4chan community and only became more prevalent when positive images were being commodified online through social media. 4chan members claim Pepe as their own, but then he goes mainstream and ‘normies’ start making Pepe memes, which ultimately sets off a chilling domino effect.
As the film works through the timeline of events, Jones excellently builds this foreboding tone that just keeps escalating as Pepe’s image slowly begins to warp over time until it explodes with a high-pitched frog screech that would become a rallying cry for 4chan users. As the Pepe memes get more vitriolic, racist and sexist, the layers of inherent and blatant irony they initially possessed are completely washed away in the 4chan users’ “Darwinian struggle for attention”, making Pepe memes as offensive and hateful as possible so that ‘normies’ will disassociate with that image.
Jones deeply examines the psychology of not just these 4chan shitposters, but also of Pepe’s creator Matt Furie. In the Boys Club comic, Pepe is the striking personification of Furie. He’s very laidback, easy-going, very warm-hearted, and has this child-like sense of wonder and he does not take life too seriously. His intoxicating personality mixed with his impeccably colorful dress-sense makes him all the more loveable, looking like either a cool substitute teacher, a California surfer dude, a hacker in bad 90s cyber-thriller, or a bizarre combination of the three. Which is why when the film will cut to an adorable scene of him playing with his daughter right after we get ten minutes of horrifying details of the Pepe meme spiraling out of control once Donald Trump’s presidential campaign begins, this stark contrast creates an overwhelming amount of sympathy for Furie. It situates you right in the center of this surreal nightmare he’s living in. He attempts to maintain his optimistic and relaxed demeanor, but you can see how everything that is happening is just tearing him apart inside, to the point where can no longer be witness to the grotesque monster Pepe has become.
With a close friendship with Furie and background in animation, Jones implements several psychedelic animated sequences with Pepe and the other Boy’s Club characters in the same art style as the original comic. Though not used as much as expected, these sequences are beautifully animated with an array of vivid colors and movements that are visually striking, while also acting as moments of poignant introspection in Matt’s journey. He is on a mission to save Pepe, but may have to come to terms with the fact that perhaps Pepe is completely out of his control and cannot be redeemed.
As the timeline catches up and the film becomes solely about Furie’s seemingly fruitless endeavor to reclaim Pepe (including legal battles with a racist children’s book using Pepe’s name and Alex Jones selling Info Wars merchandise with Pepe’s image on them) the film does lose considerable momentum compared to the forensic onslaught of terror the first half delivers. But while the film slows down, it is here where these introspective moments with Furie really blindside you with the palpable sympathy and care Jones has for his good friend.
One half a dark, strange exploration into loss of innocence and catalysts of hatred on the internet and the other half an artist’s Dr. Frankenstein-esque journey into the eye of the storm to take back his bastardized creation, Feels Good, Man is one of the most riveting documentaries in the last 5 years. Through all the doom and gloom of Pepe’s horrific transformation, Matt Furie’s optimistic and hopeful worldview is never shattered and that mentality is reflected through this film. There are many unbelievable and shocking discoveries uncovered along the way, but by the time the film reaches its conclusion, the light at the end of the tunnel just starts to become visible and there is hope that Pepe can soon become the happy little frog he was always meant to be.
Feels Good, Man is screening online as part of Fantasia Film, running from August 20 – September 2. To view the full program and buy tickets, head to fantasiafestival.com.
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