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Sunday, September 26, 2021

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Arts + CultureMoviesFrom stoner cartoon frog to vicious alt-right icon in...

From stoner cartoon frog to vicious alt-right icon in ‘Feels Good Man’

Local artist Matt Furie's lovable hipster creation was hijacked by the white supremacy movement. Here's how it happened.

It is only appropriate that Feels Good Man, Arthur Jones’s documentary about cartoonist Matt Furie and his creation Pepe the Frog should screen at the Roxie Theater’s virtual cinema, starting Fri/4. The Roxie is a Mission theater. Pepe was born when Furie worked only a couple of blocks away, as a toy sorter at Community Thrift. And Jones, who is a friend of Furie’s, knows him because his girlfriend knew Furie from the neighborhood, back in those days when Pepe was a character in Furie’s Boy’s Club comic and not an internet meme.

“Some of that old footage [in the film] is just stuff that she had shot before I was dating her and before I knew Matt,” Jones says.

“Certainly, from one of my fascinations with making the film was—I love San Francisco. I love the art that’s been made in San Francisco. I’ve never lived there personally, but I think it’s a really unique, necessary American city.”

Some of that old footage shows Furie at work, surrounded by toys. Boy’s Club launched in 2005, drawn between shifts. The stoner frog with his catchphrase, “Feels good man!” was not the only character in the comic, but he was the one that caught on with fans. Pepe was also the character that snagged the attention of the alt-right: Pepe morphed before his horrified creator’s eyes into a vicious meme, launched from 4chan boards into wider cyberspace.

Feels Good Man spins the complete tale of Pepe, from his birth in Boy’s Club after Furie had spent a lifetime of drawing frogs, to the comic’s early success, to its hijacking on the internet and Furie’s attempts since to reclaim the character. 

“The stuff with Pepe was happening in 2015 and 2016, I could see the sort of mental toll that it was taking on Matt,” Jones says.

“We talked about collaborating on a project together for a year or so. As we were talking about that that, at a certain point, I realized this would make a kind of amazing documentary film. 

“There are a lot of documentaries that have been made about the internet. I don’t know if any of them were good movies, but I thought this story of Pepe could actually make for a really good movie,” Jones said.

A cartoonist and illustrator himself, Jones employs animation to bring Pepe and Furie’s other characters to life. He uses motion graphics to give texture to the world of 4chan. Much of Feels Good Man is simply Jones following Furie, his partner, and his young daughter as they live their day-to-day lives or talking to Furie about Pepe and his situation. (A measure of just how the Pepe furor tumbled Furie into a kind of hell is reflected in Jones only being willing to say the artist lives “somewhere” in California.)

Furie comes across as a gentle soul, horrified by what became of his creation and his own part in what transpired. It’s a cautionary tale. The first Pepe memes were amiable fan art and Furie chose not to enforce his copyright, giving the alt-right an opening.

Friends and supporters of Furie appear in the doc, along with cultural commentators. Jones also gives room to the dark side. A young man simply known as Mills explains the Pepe phenomenon from the viewpoint of a 4chan user, while former Trump operative Matt Braynard shares his thoughts about Pepe. The story would not complete without that side of the story. Jones’ own background is echoed in their viewpoint.

“I grew up really conservative, I grew up in Missouri. I was like a really angry and self-loathing teenager and grew up in a conservative household,” he says. “And so, I felt like I kind of understood the reactionary politics of 4chan because as a teenager, it’s a place I might have been on. I was very happy to come out of that way of thinking in my 20s.”

The tide may be beginning to turn for Pepe, symbolized by anti-government protesters in Hong Kong who have embraced him. No longer simply an internet meme, protestors at one massive 2019 march held stuffed Pepes, used him to decorate signs, and some even wore frog masks. 

Jones has hope that Feels Good Man will also aid in Pepe’s rehabilitation. He also hopes it will make the young people that see the film realize that their actions have consequences and that they should think about how they are communicating and be mindful of what they post on the internet. And he hopes that he has helped a friend.

“I hope that the film maybe gives Matt a little bit of closure,” Jones says. “I hope the film is a rejection of cynicism that the internet I think kind of reinforces.  I think Matt does, too.”

You can watch Feels Good Man via Roxie Virtual Cinema starting Fri/4 here.

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