Everyone’s a cynic! Film, TV, music, books and art about pessimism


Taking place over one night in 2008, Margin Call is a taut display of sharp suits and sharper dialogue, in which the cantankerous colleagues at a Goldman Sachs stand-in have to decide between tanking their company or the world economy. It may lack the zany thrills of The Big Short, but by presenting the bankers as calculated insiders, its critique is altogether more damning. Against stiff competition, head trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) is the most cynical (and likable) when he itemises what he spends his enormous salary on to justify his callous choices. But it’s John Tuld (Jeremy Irons in a performance so charmingly evil as to rival his turn as Scar in The Lion King) who ultimately pulls the trigger, “so that we may survive!” Alex Mistlin



Detail from Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867-8).
Throwaway brutality … detail from Édouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867-8). Photograph: Mariano Garcia/Alamy

This is a tragic scene but Édouard Manet sees it with what seems like cynicism. There’s no howl of horror. The firing squad stand comically close to their victim. This throwaway brutality brilliantly captures the atmosphere that led to the death of Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, a puppet of the French dictator Napoleon III, who coldly abandoned him to die. Does it celebrate that? Manet’s friend, the poet Baudelaire, said the modern artist should be a “flâneur” coolly observing contemporary life. Manet was the first artist to paint in that way, free from religion or sentimentality: the first great cynic of art. Jonathan Jones



Yaya Bey is a deft-touch storyteller in the lineage of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and SZA, and Remember Your North Star plays like a documentary of disappointment, set to the soundtrack of jazz, funk and reggae-tinged R&B. Across a series of self-appraising skits, her withering impression of the dating scene grows with every seemingly farcical letdown or incredulous rebuttal (for example, the deadpan comedy chorus of Keisha: “the pussy so, so good / and you still don’t love me?”). In working her way through the generational misogynoir that so many Black women face, Bey does not exactly resign herself to romantic failure, but at least celebrates the fact that the problem is societal rather than her own. Jenessa Williams



“Today I am proud to say that I am inhuman,” writes Henry Miller. “I have nothing to do with the creaking machinery of humanity – I belong to the earth.” Accordingly, he writes – with extraordinary gusto – about sensual pleasure and about artists, who like him are “ransacking the universe”. The novel is sometimes joyful but it’s always joy taken on Miller’s own terms without giving a single damn about what anyone else thinks. The critic Edmund Wilson said the result was “the lowest book of any real literary merit that I have read”. It is just as great and just as awful as that sounds. Sam Jordison



Teen talk … Daria. Photograph: AJ Pics/Alamy

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched Daria since Channel 5 aired it on weekends well over two decades ago. However, I do remember the cartoon high-schooler was the original TV cynic. Unwaveringly sardonic, unimpressed by everything and everyone, and bang on with her observations, she was the animated teenage icon of the 90s. Her graduation speech sums it up: “Stand firm for what you believe in … until and unless logic and experience prove you wrong. Remember: when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked.” Hollie Richardson