by Clare Healy
Arts & Culture Editor
The image of the character Pepe the Frog is like a Rorschach test. If you look at him and see nothing but a smiling, bug-eyed cartoon amphibian, you probably don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet. In which case, good for you. Really.
Feels Good Man, showing as part of Docville, Leuven’s international documentary film festival, charts the lifespan of Pepe the Frog from his humble comic-book beginnings, to his meteoric rise as a beloved meme, to his adaptation by the alt-right and beyond. Exploring the breathless evolution of the character from the perspective of his creator, illustrator Matt Furie, the film is an eye-opening and sometimes poignant study of human nature disguised as an unconventional history lesson. We get up close and personal with Furie, an offbeat, lovable Californian stereotype saddled with the considerable task of dissuading the Internet from misusing his intellectual property, and also spend some time with a handful of the (somehow even more eccentric) individuals partly responsible for his woes: basement-dwelling 4chan users, a former Trump aide, and a professional trader of the cryptocurrency known as “Rare Pepes”, to name a few. Interviews, archival footage, and some remarkably well-done bespoke animations guide us through the unbelievable events punctuating Pepe’s fifteen-year lifespan, such as Donald Trump referencing him at a campaign rally, and Furie’s lawsuit with the political pundit and bipedal rooster potato Alex Jones.
We are confronted with unsettling imagery from the Internet’s underbelly, the products of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist NEETs (avid Internet users who are “Not in Education, Employment or Training”) with a Photoshop subscription and too much time on their hands.
The documentary doesn’t shy away from the grisly details — as we delve deeper into the story of Pepe’s transition from meme to hate symbol, we are confronted with unsettling imagery from the Internet’s underbelly, the products of racist, anti-Semitic and misogynist NEETs (avid Internet users who are “Not in Education, Employment or Training”) with a Photoshop subscription and too much time on their hands. Furie’s quest to save his brainchild’s reputation is shown to be the mother of all uphill battles, not only because of the vitriol behind the images, but also the sheer volume of them. Still, the filmmakers manage to infuse this sobering exposé of mob mentality with a sense of hope and humanity, highlighting that Furie, though a misfortunate man in a professional sense, is decidedly lucky in his personal life, surrounded by loving friends and family and determined to keep a positive attitude in spite of the losses that he has sustained to both his finances and his morale. Though Pepe’s image may have been corrupted for the rest of us, this is not the case for Furie — he still happily doodles the frog from time to time.
Engaging and perfectly paced, Feels Good Man is a stunning directorial debut for Arthur Jones, and should be taken more seriously than perhaps its subject matter suggests. It offers valuable insight into the Anti-Defamation League, copyright law and memetics, the study of memes, while still inviting us to see the funny side of the story it weaves. It is, after all, a funny story — absolutely horrifying, but funny nonetheless.
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