Everyone is cynical! Film, television, music, books and art on pessimism | Television

Film

Set on one night in 2008, Margin Call is a tense display of sharp costumes and sharper dialogue, in which the cantankerous colleagues of a Goldman Sachs replacement must decide between tanking their company or the global economy. It may lack the goofy thrills of The Big Short, but by portraying bankers as calculated insiders, its critique is altogether more damning. Faced with fierce competition, head trader Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) is most cynical (and likeable) when he details what he’s spending his huge salary on to justify his ruthless choices. But it’s John Tuld (Jeremy Irons in a performance so deliciously diabolical it rivals his turn as Scar in The Lion King) who finally pulls the trigger, “so we can survive!” Alex Mistlin


Art

Disposable brutality… detail from The Execution of Maximilian (1867-8) by Édouard Manet. Photograph: Mariano Garcia/Alamy

It is a tragic scene but Édouard Manet sees it with what appears to be cynicism. There is no howl of horror. The firing squad stands 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 French dictator Napoleon III, who coldly abandoned him to die. Is it celebrating? Manet’s friend, the poet Baudelaire, said that the modern artist should be a “strollercoldly observing contemporary life. Manet was the first artist to paint like this, without religion or sentimentality: the first great cynic of art. jonathan jones


Music

Yaya bey.
Documenting the disappointment… Yaya Bey. Photography: Lawrence Agyei

Yaya Bey is a skilled storyteller in the line of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and SZA, and Remember Your North Star plays like a documentary about disappointment, set to a soundtrack of jazz, funk and reggae-tinged R&B. Through a series of self-assessment sketches, her withering impression of the dating scene grows with each seemingly grotesque disappointment or disbelieving rebuttal (e.g. Keisha’s deadpan comic refrain: “pussy is so good / and you don’t still don’t love me?”). In navigating her way through the generational misogynoir that so many black women face, Bey isn’t exactly resigning herself to romantic failure, but at least celebrating that the problem is societal rather than her own. jenessa williams


Books

Tropic of Cancer

“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.” As a result, he writes – with extraordinary enthusiasm – about sensual pleasure and about artists who, like him, “ramp up the universe”. The romance is sometimes joyous but it’s always a joy taken on Miller’s own terms without caring what other people think. Critic Edmund Wilson said the result was “the lowest book of any real literary merit that I have read”. It’s as awesome and as awful as it sounds. Sam Jordan


TV

Teen talk… Daria. Credit: 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 high school kid from the cartoon being the original television cynic. Unwaveringly sardonic, unimpressed by everything and everyone, and hard-hitting with her observations, she was the animated teen icon of the ’90s. Her graduation speech sums it up: “Stand up for what you believe in… until logic and experience prove you otherwise. Remember: when the emperor looks naked, the emperor is naked. Hollie Richardson

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