FEELS GOOD MAN

★★★★

FROM STONER FROG TO BONAFIDE HATE SYMBOL

BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
By Jake Watt
21st October 2020

The swastika, a cross with each leg bent at a 90-degree angle, is an important symbol in both ancient and modern religions. It indicates, among other things, good luck, the infinity of creation, and the unconquered, revolving sun. The word "swastika" itself derives from the Sanskrit "svastika", meaning "conducive to well-being". And yet it became the symbol of the Nazi party and its poisonous ideology.

Arthur Jones' documentary 'Feels Good Man' tells the story of cartoonist Matt Furie, the guy behind the once-popular internet meme Pepe the Frog. The character began life in 2005 as a goofy slacker in an underground comic book. In one of the strips, Pepe is peeing with his pants around his ankles and later explains that he does it because it "feels good man." This phrase was picked up as a harmless joke by bodybuilders on MySpace. From there, a online snowball effect led to Pepe being branded a symbol of hatred by the Anti-Defamation League in 2016.

As Pepe became more ingrained in the culture of 4chan - a series of wholly anonymous, time-sensitive message boards - these toxic nerds started to take ownership over him, turning the meme into a mascot. At the same time, celebrities and social media influencers had started to use Pepe memes in their posts, trying to take him mainstream. 4chan users, unhappy that "normies" (i.e. "a sex-haver or a woman") had co-opted Pepe, struck back, creating the most offensive versions of the frog as a way to poison his use for outsiders. The hate associated with Pepe, camouflaged in a thin veneer of "it's just a joke by a cartoon frog, u mad?" irony, eventually become linked with the 2014 Isla Vista mass shooting and "incels" (an online community of "involuntary celibates" who are united in their hatred of the women who don't want to have sex with them).

'FEELS GOOD MAN' TRAILER

In 2016, the meme mutated into a political tool for Donald Trump during his presidential campaign. As Matt Braynard, executive director for Look Ahead America, puts it: "I think that President Trump is the real-life version of the Pepe in his ability to elicit a reaction. And to get at and express and capture people's hopes and fears."

As Braynard goes on to explain, Pepe's presence engaged 4chan politically in a way that was unheard of until that point - via "the Great Meme Wars". The memes flooded out. When Trump shared a Pepe Trump on his Twitter account, a bunch of angry people sitting behind computers realised that their memes could have an influence in the realm of politics.

The rest of the film is dedicated to the analysis of Pepe's progression from a pro-Trump meme to a pro-alt-right meme, and the razor-thin line between the two categories.

Jones interviews a vast array of people - everyone from Furie's close friends to fellow animators, to political analysts and academics who've written books on internet culture. Furie's roommate shows the filmmakers the Pepe tattoo he got during the heady first days of the character's popularity. A visit to an iDRAMA Lab Conference sees Jeremy Blackburn offer a quantitate analysis of data by building a system to measure memes. A highlight is John Michael Greer, occultist and scholar, whose explanation of "meme magic" (a supposed psychic energy caused via mass concentration) is quite fascinating.

It's an insanely disturbing and complicated story, but Jones uses a light-hearted and humorous tone, along with colourful animation in the style of Furie's artwork, to lessen any sense of despair.

At the centre of it all is Matt Furie - a laid-back young artist who finds himself in over his head when the internet takes ownership of his character. He floats bemusedly through the early years of Pepe's popularity, not taking responsibility until the alt-right has sunk its hooks deep into his creation.

The publishing of 'The Adventures of Pepe and Pede', an Islamophobic children's book using Pepe as a main character, is the main driver for the change from Furie's hands-off attitude. While some of his more creative approaches (encouraging artists to draw the frog as a symbol for peace, then later killing his character off) have accomplished little, his legal approach has had many small victories by using copyright law to stop figures such as Alex Jones' InfoWars selling merchandise featuring Pepe.

It's an insanely disturbing and complicated story, but Jones uses a light-hearted and humorous tone, along with colourful animation in the style of Furie's artwork, to lessen any sense of despair. The film ends with scenes of the democracy protests in Hong Kong during 2019. Here, Pepe was not used as an emblem of hate but one of hope, freedom, and protest; a way to resist authoritarianism. It's not unlike the way that the Nazi swastika is today reviled in the West, but remains popular within Buddhist and Hindu society as an auspicious and sacred symbol in the East.

Arthur Jones' extremely well-crafted documentary does an excellent job explaining the grimy sub-culture of 4chan to non-nerdburgers. It's one of the first large-scale attempts to document how a meme gains popularity - which, by design, is nearly impossible, since there is no formula to create a meme, nor is there one that decides what will become popular. 'Feels Good Man' tells an absorbing tale about how something as simple as a cartoon frog can be easily co-opted and corrupted to become a symbol of pure malevolence.

Looking for more Brisbane International Film Festival reviews? Click here to check out our collection of this year's highlights.
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