Dean Martin: “Cooler” than Frank Sinatra?

January 18, 2012

In my quest for sophistication, I’ve started listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra of the Rat Pack a lot recently.

After hearing their music and reading some brief biographies, I’ve come to admire both of these men for their confidence and class.  Cigarette or martini in hand, these virtuosos could sing, act, and crack jokes.  Both flourished out of rocky beginnings:  Martin was an amateur boxer who fought in bare-knuckle bouts because he couldn’t afford wrapping tape, while Sinatra had to carry his own P.A. system to perform at run-down saloons.  And in their Rat Pack heyday, they were comfortable enough to crack innocuous jokes about race, religion, and gender yet ultimately principled enough to refuse to perform at clubs that excluded African-Americans and Jews.

These were cool guys.  Just listening to Martin’s “Who’s Got the Action?” and Sinatra’s “I Won’t Dance” when I wake up every morning makes me feel like a cooler person for the rest of the day, for real.  In a sense, they’ve joined the ever-growing ranks of role models in my life as I seek to become a more complete person.

So, why am I talking about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra in a Catholic blog?  (It’s not just because both of them were born and raised Catholic.)

It has to do with the idea of role models. Especially when we are growing up, the role models we choose for ourselves are critical to who we become.  A lot of the time, these role models of ours come from popular culture; they are often recognized throughout much of society and demonstrate distinctive behavior or ideals that we want to emulate.

The reason I think that Dean Martin is “cooler” than Frank Sinatra — I use “cooler” facetiously, considering he was nicknamed the “King of Cool” — or, rather, the reason that I like Martin better as a role model, is that he seemed to have his priorities straight.

Though Martin divorced three times (once for his wife’s alcoholism, another time in the midst of a mid-life crisis), he was always if not outwardly recognized as a family man.  A father of 8, he cared immensely for his family even after his divorces, and he often left immediately after performances to spend time with his kids.  It’s said that Sinatra was actually quite irked that Martin preferred quiet time with his family to a rowdy time with the Rat Pack.  Martin was also shattered when his son Dean Paul Martin died in a plane crash and bowed out of a reunion tour with Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr.

Furthermore, Martin, unlike Sinatra, enjoyed solitude.  While he always was able to have fun during a night on the town , he much preferred being at home with his family, or playing golf, or eating alone at his favorite Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.

These two characteristics — a love of family and an ability to be alone with oneself– are important to emulate, particularly for Catholics. Catholics need to keep the family strong because familial love is often a child’s first experience of God’s love.  Catholics also should learn to be alone with themselves sometimes, because in doing so, we can better discern God’s call and contemplate our lives.

As his divorces show, Martin wasn’t perfect.  He also liked to keep up a persona of hard-drinking and irreverence; it got him the admiration and adulation he needed to stay a popular performer.  But Martin didn’t really need the attention.  In his private life, he knew what really mattered.  And that is what makes him, I think, “forever cool.”

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Movies Catholics Should Watch: Tokyo Godfathers

January 2, 2012

Tokyo Godfathers, directed by Satoshi Kon

Now this isn’t your typical Christmas movie.  (At least, insofar as the “typical” Christmas movie takes you into the lives of the homeless in Japan.)  Three Tokyo “bums” — Gin, a middle-aged alcoholic; Hana, a born-again Christian and a former drag queen; and Miyuki, a teenage runaway — find an abandoned baby on Christmas Eve and set out to find the baby’s parents.  As they witness kidnappings, double-crossings, and attempted suicides, each of the protagonists’ histories is revealed.

There is a realistic roughness to each one of the protagonists; it seems as if there is always something for which we can condemn them.  Indeed, the film soon makes clear that no one is blameless (except perhaps the abandoned baby).  Yet Gin, Hana, and Miyuki each have their moment to redeem themselves, and it is at these moments that they become most beloved to the audience.

Three essential themes emerge to the discriminating Catholic viewer.  First, each one of us is a person with a story;  no one can ever be considered “trash” or less than human.  Even though the protagonists are homeless and “useless” to society, they all have a back-story to why they are in their current state of life.

Second, everyone has a family, and family is essential to who we are.  Though Gin, Hana, Miyuki abandoned their families, some seemingly supernatural force brought them back together.  Moreover, the three protagonists form a sort of surrogate family of their own, and despite the fact they despise each other at times, they care deeply for each other.  The bonds of family — whether biological or not — are near-impossible to sever.

The third and final theme of Tokyo Godfathers is the little miracles in our lives that we call coincidences.  Coincidence follows coincidence after Gin, Hana, and Miyuki discover the baby — they are led back to their families, gain flashes of insight about themselves, and even have their lives saved.  Indeed, one might say that “coincidences” are proof that a higher plan is guiding us; nothing ever happens without reason.

This isn’t your typical Christmas movie, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch it.  Add it to your to-watch list for next Christmas season…or as early as now, for that matter.

In short…

Content:  Narrative that relies heavily on flashbacks.  There are plenty of twists that keep you on your toes, and the flashbacks progressively humanize the protagonists throughout the film.
Style:  True to form, Satoshi Kon (director of the anime films
Millennium Actress and Paprika) makes you scratch your head as you wonder if you’ve missed something.  However, Tokyo Godfathers wraps up much more cleanly than Millennium Actress and Paprika.
Catholic:  A subtle analysis of the human condition that places emphasis on the dignity of every person and on the family.  Very Catholic indeed, if not outwardly so.

Overall:  3 out of 4 stars