Thursday, September 10, 2020

Movie Review: Feels Good Man

Feels Good Man **** / *****
Directed by: Arthur Jones.
Written by: Giorgio Angelini and Arthur Jones and Aaron Wickenden based on original artwork by Matt Furie.

What do you do if you’re a mild mannered comics artist, who sees one of your creations adopted by the alt-right, and memed to death, supporting a cause you don’t agree with? If you’re Matt Furie, the creator Pepe the Frog, at first the answer is nothing. Pepe didn’t start his life as an alt-right troll, but as a character in Furie’s Boys Club comic – essentially a riff on post-college malaise, and male friendship. He grew out of that phase of his career, and moved onto others things. As what often happens with these things, Pepe’s journey to the alt-right started slowly – and Furie didn’t really seem to care if some fringe, basement dwellers in a small, dark corner of the internet had appropriated his creation. Besides, what was he supposed to do? It’s up to the artist to go after copyright infringement, and these people weren’t really using Pepe to make money. He just let it go. And in letting in go, he allowed it to get bigger. And by the time he decided to fight back against it, it was too late – and his fight perhaps even made things get worse. Many of the people who love Pepe are trolls – they don’t really believe in much of anything – they just want to get a rise out of you, and if they get it, they’re just keep coming back.

I almost wish the film had spent even more time than it does on the trolls on 4chan who started using Pepe the Frog. The film shows how it happened – how these basement dwellers saw an image of Pepe the Frog, and liked it, so they started using it on their boards. It slowly grew, and soon, the wider internet had adopted Pepe the Frog as well – still not as a symbol of the alt-right, but rather has a cute meme. This infuriated those who first discovered the meme – and going all “I liked that band before they got famous” on it, decided to ruin Pepe the Frog for everyone. You think he’s cute, eh? What if he’s a concentration camp guard gassing Jews? Not so cute now.

This dark corner of the internet needs a fuller exploration. We get a few of them here – who help us see how it all worked, how Trump supporters adopted Pepe, and how eventually the campaign did as well. You get the sense from those the film talks to though that they aren’t really Trump die hards – they’re nihilists. They don’t love Trump – they love that Trump makes so many people angry. And to them, that’s funny, so if they can get Trump to be President, it’s even funnier.

But the way the film goes has its merits as well. It looks at Furie, as he decides he has had enough. His innocent, stoner creation was never meant to be this symbol of hate – it is literally put on the Southern Poverty Law Centre’s list of hate symbols – and so he tries to take it back. First, he tries to kill off Pepe – which didn’t work. Then he tried to get artists to draw Pepe as a symbol of love – they did, but the trolls ruined that as well. Then, he calls a lawyer. You may not be able to sue an anonymous troll in his basement – but you can sue Alex Jones, who uses Pepe to make money.

To be fair, while Furie has made progress, it isn’t likely he’ll ever be able to “take back” Pepe the Frog. As Randall learned in Clerks II, when he tried to take back the phrase “Porch Monkey”, once the cat is out of the bag, it’s out. But he’s trying. And Feels Good Man ends up being a portrait of a nice guy – an artist who saw the worst thing that can happen to your art happen, and decide to do something. Maybe it’s not – but it’s the best he can do.

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