The violence becomes the meme.
Every artist’s worst nightmare is watching his/her work become appropriated for a cause antithetical to its origins. It happens all the time. Just this week the Republican National Convention played Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” despite being told they didn’t have the permission of the late songwriter’s estate. Whereas the latter now has legal grounds and copyright law on its side to discuss filing suit in response to the infraction, things get murky when fair use rears its head and even murkier after falling further into the realm of internet meme-dom. Even then, however, you can more often than not shrug your shoulders and move on or lean into the notoriety and exploit it for personal gain. Just pray that slope doesn’t turn your work into an emblem of evil.
As illustrator Matt Furie discovered shortly after creating the post-college slacker known as Pepe the Frog in 2005, you can find yourself waking up to discover the happy-go-lucky “little brother” from your comic “Boys’ Club” has been transformed into the twenty-first century’s swastika. The Nazi Party turned an ancient iconographic symbol used by Indian religions to represent divinity into the visual equivalent of ethnic cleansing. And now white nationalists had taken Furie’s irreverent anthropomorphic frog and done the same thing with insidious intent. Suddenly the image was no longer his. This character that Matt breathed life into was irrevocably hijacked and there was nothing he could do besides watch in helpless horror as then-presidential candidate Donald Trump legitimized its theft with the click of a button.
Animator Arthur Jones‘ directorial debut Feels Good Man might bill itself as a glimpse into Furie’s years-long journey to rescue Pepe from the character’s newfound infamy, but it very quickly reveals itself as journalistic exposé on the dangers of meme culture and the perfect storm that set the stage for Trump’s ascension to the presidency. If you think anyone connecting the dots from a crudely drawn frogman cartoon to the authoritarian chaos America has thrown itself into these past four years sounds absurd, you’ve just revealed to the world that you haven’t been paying attention. And that’s exactly what men like Steve Bannon and Matt Braynard (former Data Chief and Strategist for Trump for President, interviewed here with as much smug contempt as you’d assume) hoped.
This is a densely packed film that both entertains via Furie’s empathetic quest to redeem his creation and educates with a very necessary lesson in meme culture and online behavior from the likes of Dr. Susan Blackmore, Dr. Aleks Krotoski, occult scholar John Michael Greer, and 4chan expert Dale Beran—the latter of whom provides the sole moment of shoddy writing on behalf of the filmmakers due to them allowing him to joyously speak about how the eventual re-usurpation of Pepe for good during the Hong Kong protests signifies a “powerfully galvanizing” effort via imagery as though motive makes it different from what he already explained the alt-right already did (it doesn’t). More than just a crash course on the topic, Jones supplies a well-researched thesis.
And he does it with some inspired animation that enlists Pepe and his friends Andy, Brett, and Landwolf to be our guides through this wealth of undeniably relevant information. It’s the perfect visual and tonal contrast to the cesspool of hate and racism popping-up on-screen whenever our tour takes a detour into the internet’s dark underbelly of “neets” and crypto-currency fanatics. Jones isn’t afraid to show the complexity of this ever-expanding situation either as long as he can get his subjects away from the anonymous text boxes in which they travel via personal computers. 4channers “Pizza” and especially “Mills” let him into their homes to talk about the lifestyle and perhaps even reveal some remorse. They help us understand the community and the psychology behind a “win/loss” existence.
Furie must inevitably engage in a similar fight—albeit from a much more transparent venue—once things spiral so far out of control that he can no longer use his normally carefree attitude to laugh away the anxiety. When you’re dealing with people who work to diminish, obfuscate, and ultimately reject reality (tactics Trump epitomizes), the only way to survive is by destroying their idea of invincibility and forcing them to face consequences (even if they’ll spin that punishment into a victory anyway a la Alex Jones). Furie thought he could co-exist with the Neo-Nazis who gradually stripped the irony and warped camaraderie born out of Pepe’s image away, but doing so only helped fuel their goals. They want acknowledgement. Attempts to shame them empowers instead.
Going from Matt’s infectious smile and children’s book The Night Riders to a Pepe button-adorned Richard Spencer and viral videos of a Hillary Clinton event attendee yelling Pepe’s name during her speech while anonymous users online egg him/her on is absolutely wild, but the juxtaposition is real. Feels Good Man is therefore always traveling between its brilliant human element (never get a tattoo of your friend’s cartoon unless you know it won’t eventually brand you a white supremacist) and unavoidable existential dread from looking behind the curtain at the rise of a faux anarchist movement by a faceless horde out for a laugh. Nothing in this world is truly ours when someone with a louder voice and larger platform take it. By then it’s sadly already too late.
courtesy of Fantasia International Film Festival