Fantasia 2020 Review: FEELS GOOD MAN, Pepe the Frog's Ruination and Reclamation
Art is a funny thing.
When an artist creates a piece, it often means something to them. That meaning may be deep and personal, it may reflect their own culture, values, ideas, and beliefs. Sometimes, though, it's just something they thought was a neat way of capturing a moment or a thought, a humorous way of communicating the mundane. I have the feeling that when Matt Furie created the indie comic Boys' Club back in 2005, he was aiming more toward the latter. A slacker comic aimed at amusing other slackers, he had no way of realizing that his work would come to mean so much in the culture war that was to come.
The problem with art from the side of the creator is that once it is shared to the public, it becomes a public thing. People are free to attach all kinds of meaning to it depending on their own experiences, and normally that's a good thing. However, when a piece of art, like Furie's innocuous anthropomorphic frog, Pepe, somehow became the figurehead for the reactionary alt-right wave that swept the United States in the mid '2010s, it became something of a disaster. What was once a simple frog who enjoyed the simple pleasures of peeing with his pants around his ankles, became an icon of white nationalism, internet troll superiority, and everything wrong with the world. And Furie got mad.
Documentary filmmaker Arthur Jones takes a deep dive into the phenomenon of Pepe the Frog in Feels Good Man, the story of an unlikely icon whose creator is desperate to reclaim him from the jaws of internet infamy. Jones follows Furie as he watches his innocent creation being absorbed into the septic tank of American ultra right wing propaganda, and helps to contextualize Pepe's crazy journey to the dark side, from which Furie hopes to wrest back control.
Feels Good Man takes Pepe's commandeering by the alt-right as a jumping off point for several much larger discussions. He dives deeply into the murky waters of the internet troll factory that is 4chan, even spending a significant chunk of the doc's interview time with a regular poster on the accursed forum, helping the audience gain valuable insight into what makes a person rely so heavily on the negativity 4chan breeds. He also interviews occult experts, meme experts, Furie's friends and family, and gathers an astonishing amount of archival footage from TV and the internet to help us understand just what went wrong and whether there's any way Furie can ever make it right.
Jones' and Furie's take on the continuing strange and tragic saga of Pepe the Frog is shockingly upbeat in the end. Using Furie's legal battle with noted nutjob Alex Jones as a first step toward justice for Pepe, there's a definite optimism in Feels Good Man, perhaps unearned, but uplifting nonetheless. Jones' sharp dissection of Pepe's trajectory is fascinating, his gathering of perspectives and witnesses to the events at hand is admirable, lending credibility and nuance to what many - myself included - saw simply as a right wing meme whose appearance meant that I could immediately discount whatever message was attached.
Feels Good Man shows that often behind the meme is a man with good intentions, but whose efforts are corrupted and forever tainted by an internet with no mercy or empathy. Thankfully, it also shows a potential for reclamation, resolution, and maybe even restoration to its intended purpose. It's a story of a man fighting the good fight, trying to maintain one's own integrity in a world gone crazy, even if it just means gaining back control over a simple cartoon frog. And why not? In the end, if you can do something to bring a little bit of joy back into the world, you know what... it Feels Good Man.