How Pepe Was Martyred by the Right
Austin-linked SXSW doc Feels Good Man liberates the frog
By Richard Whittaker,
8:21PM, Fri. Mar. 13, 2020
When you hear "Pepe the Frog" your first thought is most likely "Why are there still Nazis?" But SXSW 2020 selection Feels Good Man, which plays twice this week in special showings, is about the innocent little indie comic that spawned Pepe, and how the alt-Right and "the death of the author" created a monster.
Directed by Arthur Jones, the documentary follows Pepe from just one character in artist Matt Furie's dopey, personal indie comic Boys Club became a vessel for Reddit and 4Chan users for all their emotions and jokes before finally becoming an unlikely hate symbol - and its latest evolution, into an icon for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The film, which premiered at Sundance, was supposed to get its Austin debut at SXSW this weekend. However, in the wake of the festival's cancellation, the filmmakers have arranged a couple of special screenings at the Violet Crown Cinema, at 7:10pm on Saturday, March 14 and 1:30pm on Tuesday, March 17, with producer/writer Giorgio Angelini and producer Caryn Capotosto in attendance for a post-screening Q&A (tickets here).
However, with these Austin screenings announced, Angelini (a former Austinite and UT Austin alum) talked with the Chronicle about what the corruption of poor Pepe says about the man who made- and lost - his creation, and the perils of meme culture. He explained, "'Any time you can tell a really personal, precise story but hopefully it's a much larger cultural narrative, it's my favorite kind of film; and Matt is just this incredible avatar for the viewer to re-experience 2016 and render more legible a world that, for a lot of people, has been very hard to understand. It was this moment where the internet and real life inverted, and objective reality became totally questioned. Thankfully a lot of older audiences respond to it that way, that they go, 'Ah, I finally understand what the fuck is going on.'"
Austin Chronicle: Superficially, the film is about Pepe and Matt, but it's really this bigger story of cultural ownership, and what happens when something you created to a specific end is taken from you. When did you realize that this story was about more than one cartoon?Giorgio Angelini: I had been on Reddit and was very familiar with Pepe as a meme but, to be quite honest, I was not aware of its origin. I was making a film that I directed about housing called Owned and was working with an animator named Arthur [Jones, director of Feels Good Man] who ended up becoming a very good friend of mine during the making of Owned. By the time we'd finished and were doing the post for that, Arthur said, "I've got this friend, Matt Furie, and I don't know if you're familiar or not but he created this thing, Pepe the Frog." My synapses just started firing and I went, "Yes, tell me more," and he said, "Well, I never made a film before, and we had a great time making Owned, I dunno, I could use your help."
I ended up walking the full length of Brooklyn, talking on the phone with him about all the ideas for the film. Where my mind went was, this is a film about an artist's journey and it's a film about artistic agency, but it's really a film that tell this much bigger story. And that's what I get really excited about.
AC: There are two ways you could have approached this. You could have looked at Pepe as the meme, and then carved back. Instead, the structure is much more about starting with this little indie press comic that gets taken away from its creator.GA: We had this running comment that came from our senior editor, Aaron Wickenden, about the thin green line. We were always struggling about how much back story to give to the history of all this, the glossary of concepts, versus Matt's personal journey. We always felt that we had to give just enough contextual information, then rush back to Matt as this antidote to the insanity around him.
We always had to make sure that there was a three-act structure, and a good guy and a bad guy, and Matt was really the center of it, rather than what happened to Pepe or the other ancillary stories about the alt-right and memes and Trump. We were very adamant not to give Trump a voice in the film - not least because people are fucking sick of it - because it's a symptom. It's not specific to our story, even if it's involved.
AC: You also have a huge amount of archival footage, and I feel for anyone that has to go through that much Alex Jones.GA: You should see our hard drives. Just pages and pages and pages of screengrabs of 4Chan and crazy YouTube videos. Our whole team went down big, weird rabbit holes of content.
Our other editor, Drew Blatman, really excels at treating archival footage in a way that feels very of-the-moment and part of the cinematic experience, rather than just "someone says something and here's an example of that." We wanted very much to feel like the internet was coming alive.
A lot of that came from our sound edit. Our sound editor, Lawrence Everson, is just an absolute Jedi. I literally started crying when I heard the first 30 minutes because he'd made this very small, two dimensional internet world seem huge and cinematic.
AC: Why do you personally think that, out of everything out there, that this all happened to Pepe?GA: I think there's a power. When Matt was drawing Boys Club, he was in this post-college malaise, working a low-paying job and having a pretty good time living, as he says, a knuckle-head lifestyle. He was responding to the world around him in the best way he knew how, and that was art.
That was what gets lost in all this: despite this being a tiny indie comic with no backing behind it, it wound up being arguably the most popular cartoon character on the planet. There are reasons for that. The artwork resonated with a particular group of people, the early adopters of early internet culture on 4Chan and 2Chan and Ebaum's World. Pepe was a representation of a lot of those people's feelings about life and owning your loserdom. Like we say in the film, he's peeing with his pants down and his friends make fun of him, and he goes, "Whatever. Feels good man." That was this accidental rallying cry. What corporations pay billions to do became this thing organically [and] that popularity metastasized into something different.
I think there's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking about what Matt should or shouldn't have done, but he's the only person this has happened to.
Feels Good Man Austin screenings, 7:10pm March 14 and 1:30pm March 17 with producers Giorgio Angelini and Caryn Capotosto in attendance. Violet Crown, 434 W. Second. Tickets at www.austin.violetcrown.com.