Pepe documentary ‘Feels Good Man’ reveals the struggle of the man behind the frog
- Monday, Jan. 27, 2:30 p.m., Prospector Square Theatre
- Tuesday, Jan. 28, 9 p.m., Temple Theatre
- Thursday, Jan. 30, 9 p.m., Tower Theatre, Salt Lake City
- Friday, Jan. 31, 10 p.m., Redstone Cinema 2
- Saturday, Feb. 1, 9 p.m., Park Avenue Theatre
Arthur Jones’ first-ever feature documentary was inspired by an internet meme, but it’s about a lot more than just a JPEG.
“Feels Good Man,” an entry in the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, charts the decade-plus, “inexplicable” journeys of Pepe the Frog from versatile avatar to far-right dog whistle, and his creator, an indie cartoonist named Matt Furie who only wanted to make a zine about four friends hanging out.
So, who is the man behind the frog?
For starters, Furie is definitely not a Nazi. He’s not a viral content creator, either. He isn’t even particularly fond of the internet, according to Jones.
“He’s one of the least-online people I know, he doesn’t have an Instagram account or go on Facebook,” said Jones, an animator by trade, of Furie. “This kind of happened because he really is a pen-and-paper kind of guy; he really was unaware of any of this stuff and truly does not (care) about it.”
Before the first rare Pepe ever showed up on message boards, Furie was part of a vibrant printmaking community in San Francisco.
“Matt had a following as an indie cartoonist, but indie comics is pretty niche in America,” he said. “It was really unexpected when the character became a wildly popular meme.”
In 2005, he posted one panel of his comic zine “Boys Club” onto his MySpace profile. In the panel, Pepe, in describing the act of pulling his pants all the way down to urinate, utters that fateful phrase: “Feels good man.”
Three years later, a user on the imageboard 4chan uploaded a scan of the panel, and an extraordinarily long-lived internet meme was born.
At first, Pepe was simply an expression of whatever a poster happened to feel at the time: Feels good man. Feels bad man. A smug Pepe. An angry at offline “normies” Pepe. Pepe’s face on a Pokemon.
Furie didn’t mind. Remix culture has existed for a long time and he had a family he was starting.
“He was concentrated on other things, you know,” Jones said.
As the decade went on, though, the internet changed. Corporate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter gained prominence in place of rag-tag message boards and chat rooms. 4chan, for example, was once an anything-goes message board where conversations only had one guaranteed quality: irreverence.
But a series of upheavals led to 4chan becoming a place where users blamed others — parents, women who develop video games, women in general — for their frustrations and eventually became a breeding ground for what would become the alt-right soon after Donald Trump announced his run for president in 2015.
On Oct. 13 that year, the man who would become president tweeted an image of a Pepe clad in a suit, standing at a dais and sporting a blond combover.
So went the internet and so did Pepe, Jones said. The frog became the mascot of a far-right movement and was even branded a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. That’s when Furie attempted to rein things in via copyright law, an agonizing decision that was intended to, in his words, “stop dumb shit from happening.”
“The movie is really about him negotiating that uncomfortable reality for himself,” Jones said. “Matt’s personal journey really makes the movie really unique that I hope a lot of people find satisfying for a lot of reasons.”
Furie and Pepe’s journey reflects how the internet has changed culture and vice versa, Jones said. The documentary includes original animation by Jones featuring the character and is structured in four acts based on variations of Pepe’s mood — which is a deployment of the meme itself.
“It really was this way of simplifying much larger ideas that I think is pretty unique to the film,” Jones said.
Jones only finished cutting the film together the Friday before the festival and said the process was like a “slow-rolling panic attack,” but that he’s excited to show it to the Sundance audience. “There’s been times this past week where I’ve been at my wit’s end,” Jones said.
Jones hopes that audiences will come away from “Feels Good Man” with a greater respect for the reality of what goes on online — whether it’s a dancing baby, a bug-eyed hockey mascot or just a white guy who happened to blink in a relatable way on camera, nothing is “just a meme” anymore.
“We think about the internet being something as ‘other,’ but the internet is no longer ‘other,” he said. “The person who you are online is maybe who you actually are.”
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