Polygon’s entertainment team is on the ground at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, bringing you first looks at what are sure to be some of the year’s best blockbuster-alternative offerings. Here’s what you need to know before these indie films make their way to theaters, streaming services, and the cinematic zeitgeist.
Logline: Matt Furie creates Pepe the Frog, the internet discovers Pepe the Frog, upset 4chaners meme Pepe the Frog, Trump supporters co-opt Pepe the Frog, Furie fights to save Pepe the Frog, and in 92 minutes, what Pepe the Frog represents becomes clearer than ever.
Longerline: In 2005, Furie, a cartoonist based in San Francisco, uploaded his first digital comic to Myspace. In the early Boy’s Club comics, Pepe the Frog was one of four unremarkable, anthropomorphic animals who drank, partied, and lounged their way through post-college malaise. But in one fateful panel, Pepe pulled down his pants to his ankles to pee and uttered the phrase “feels good, man.” The line inadvertently disrupted mass culture for well over the next decade.
As Illustrator, animator, and journalist Arthur Jones discovers in the new documentary Feels Good Man, the phenomenon of Pepe the Frog becoming an icon of white supremacy is both impossible to imagine, and completely explainable. Jones interviews Furie, his arty pals, meme scholars, psychologists, 4chan devotees, students of the occult, and even President Trump’s campaign data analyst to understand Pepe’s devolution into a grotesque pawn in the war against decency. As one interviewee notes, Furie’s vibrant drawings were simple and malleable enough to be redrawn by those who wanted to conjure nightmares. So that’s what the trolls made him: scraggly, disembodied from context, and occasionally covered in swastikas.
Jones started shooting his documentary early enough to catch Furie distancing himself from the Pepe explosion. Even after Pepe took root on 4chan, the cartoonist thought he had a hope of claiming ownership, and maybe selling a few T-shirts. But after the 2016 election, the Anti-Defamation League added the frog to their list of hate symbols, jolting Furie to take more serious action. He started a “#SavePepe” campaign, urging artists to reimagine Pepe with messages of peace. In response, alt-right voices and anonymous firebrands spewed more remixes of the character. Provoked, Furie eventually “killed” Pepe, hired a fleet of IP lawyers to stomp out the fire in whatever way possible, and went to battle with Alex Jones.
The quote that says it all: “It definitely sucks, but … nothing is forever, right?”
What’s it trying to do? Weaving through the chronology, Jones’ film makes a case that Pepe isn’t so much a cautionary tale as a window into a larger, all-consuming digital dystopia. Today’s chaos agents use “negativity to brainwash men on the fringe,” and protect themselves through the protective bubble of irony. Feels Good Man suggests they might be impossible to combat. If people on the internet want to “warp reality” by electing the “personification of Pepe,” laissez-faire platforms help them organize and execute real-world plans. If they want to collectively destroy something, they will.
In one scene, Furie begs the Anti-Defamation League to remove Pepe from the hate-symbol list. The organization refuses — how could they? Pepe will forever be a hate symbol. Like many moments in the film, the point hangs in the air, weighing on the artist and the audience.
Does it get there? Feels Good Man instills viewers with a necessary sense of dread, but it isn’t nihilistic. Furie is a clear victim of radicalized irony and a nationalist movement that took full advantage of his work, and there may not be a way to protect idealists like him in the current moment. But Jones argues, through thoughtful interviews, that the men seemingly trapped in the online vortex, and their parents’ basements, are also victims who could be rescued.
One interviewee, who presents his trash-filled bedroom like he’s on Cribs, expresses the emotional journey that led him to a devout “NEET” life. His Pepe memes started as a game before raging out into a protest against women who embraced the frog’s sillier side (including Nicki Minaj). Self-flagellating himself as a “wagecuck,” the man wound up so far removed from his former self that he was praising mass shooters on 4chan. “We feel alone together,” he says of Pepe’s biggest fans. Jones documents these unjustifiable arguments for terror for the same reason a scientist engineers a vaccine out of a pathogen.
What does that get us? Possibly the most urgent and poignant political documentary of the year. With an election looming, it’s hard to watch Feels Good Man without feeling like we’ve run out of time. The grand experiment of the internet was a failure, but there’s no turning it off. In 2016, the cult of Pepe turned to the Egyptian frog god Kek in order to cripple Hillary Clinton with psychic energy. (And they think it worked.) Presumably 2020 will have its own meme-fueled, amateur technocracy pulling strings on a world that many believe stills works the way it did 50 years ago. Even if Hong Kong protestors manage to reshape Pepe’s image once again, there always seems to be something new lurking in the shadows.
There is a glimmer of hope in the doc: Maybe those same people might see this film, consider what’s under the surface of mainstream culture, and start remedying the problems through education. Maybe. But even if you’re heard every Pepe story, Jones’ film is the complete saga, with all the dots connected. It does feel good, man, but it had to be said in this way.
The most meme-able moment: Making a documentary about a meme that also has a meme-worthy moment is hard ask, but one early scene seems emblematic of every conversation about the internet we have today, and should be shown as a quick-bite video until the end of time.
“What do people get wrong when they draw Pepe?” Jones asks Furie.
“Maybe when they put him on the internet saying, ‘Kill Jews’?”
When can we see it? Feels Good Man is an independent production that premiered at Sundance, and it’s currently seeking distribution.