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How did an innocuous animated frog with bulging eyes and an appreciation for peeing with his pants pulled all the way down journey from indie comic obscurity to meme celebrity to notoriety as the global poster-frog for hatred and alienated nihilism?
This is the question posed by Arthur Jones’ new documentary Feels Good Man, premiering as part of the U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The basic question and history depicted in Feels Good Man are not actually all that obscure. Pepe the Frog was part of the ensemble of Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club and his pleasure-loving ethos was embodied in the catchphrase that gives the documentary its name. He was appropriated first in fitness forums then by users of a 4chan message board and, within the space of half a decade, he became beloved by online outsiders who were initially way off on the fringes and eventually found an angry voice in a chicken-or-the-egg union between the alt-right and the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
Much of this evolution, or devolution, has been well chronicled online. And Jones, whose own background is in animation, isn’t discovering anything that wasn’t already reported when Trump tweeted a Pepe-ized avatar of himself and various social media platforms were inundated by frogs of all emotional ilk, as Pepe’s easy satisfaction was replaced by sadness, anger and, in its most potent of guises, smugness.
Just because Feels Good Man loses some of its revelatory power if you read the wide-ranging 2016 Atlantic story by documentary talking head Adam Serwer doesn’t mean that it’s not a history worth recounting — or that there isn’t mood-spanning entertainment in having it recounted this well.
Jones traces Pepe’s history in a way that’s occasionally fun (animated sequences starring Pepe), sporadically brainy (Dr. Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, is one of several featured academics), frequently deeply nerdy (4chan users with names like “pizza” are included) and sometimes just plain scary (bearded sage John Michael Greer brings the occult into the discussion). By the time you’ve finished the full Feels Good Man journey, you’ll feel at least rudimentarily conversant in things like the “Beta Uprising,” “NEETs” and the brief wave of female-driven Pepe appropriation that may have caused the character’s swing into ironic and then non-ironic Nazism and Trumpism.
There’s a well-executed emotional journey that will take viewers from amused to bemused to horrified to miserable and probably to a point of genuine anger, depending on your take on figures like glib Trump stooge Matt Braynard, who couldn’t come across as more fundamentally nefarious if he had a mustache to twirl.
But Feels Good Man isn’t just about Pepe. Jones is friends with Furie, and the documentary is also a Frankenstein story. What do you do when your creation takes on a life of its own, when it no longer matters if your creation is monstrous or misunderstood because the villagers are coming with pitchforks? Can the creature go back to innocently picking flowers and befriending little girls or does he have to be stopped?
Furie features heavily in Feels Good Man, and you certainly won’t leave the documentary thinking that he’s a bad person or that he bears the blame for how Pepe has been used. Whether you come away thinking he’s at least partially responsible is something else. And this is where Furie’s own fundamental naiveté — probably his greatest sin — and Jones’ friendship with his subject blur in ways that either seem completely empathetic, if you buy it, or make the doc feel correspondingly naive in unintended ways.
By the end, I found myself much more in the second camp, which didn’t take away from my overall interest in the subject and the very slick and entertaining way it’s treated here; it just lessened the affection I felt for the movie walking away from it.
There’s a sympathy that the film asks you to have for Furie when he and a marketing cohort find themselves stuck with thousands of dollars in unsellable Pepe merchandise that they commissioned when Pepe was one kind of viral sensation that then couldn’t be moved when the image went viral in a different way. Furie acknowledges he probably could have stepped in to take copyright action earlier, but doesn’t seem aware that the point to do that was probably when he chose to try to capitalize on it instead. There’s also a sympathy the documentary wants you to have as Furie begs the ADL to take Pepe off of the hate symbol database as if a couple of victories over the likes of Alex Jones and Infowars are enough to scrub the internet’s dark corners of malignant Pepes. And there’s a hopefulness that the film wants you to feel toward the end that comes off like it was tacked on by people who have never received anti-Semitic Pepes in reply to tweets three or four degrees removed from anything Jewish.
Feels Good Man is terrific at building up to its argument. It doesn’t make me understand the apparently lucrative phenomenon of Pepe-currency or rare Pepes, but otherwise most of the lines it draws through online train wreck culture and shifts in mainstream culture are clear, harrowing and appropriately cautionary. But buying Pepe as misunderstood and buying Pepe as a character destined for redemption are two different things, and it’s the argument after the buildup where Feels Good Man stopped feeling persuasive for me. Your hopefulness may vary.
Director: Arthur Jones
Producers: Giorgio Angelini, Caryn Capotosto, Arthur Jones, Aaron Wickenden
Animation: Jenna Caravello, Arthur Jones, Nicole Stafford, Khylin Woodrow
Editors: Aaron Wickenden, Drew Blatman, Katrina Taylor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)
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