Magazine article The New Yorker


Magazine article The New Yorker


Article excerpt

A few days after the debut of "Moneyball," the film's director, Bennett Miller, was scouting the shelves at the Village Chess Shop, on Thompson Street, meditatively hefting rosewood bishops. As a student in New York University's film program, a quarter century ago, he used to haunt the store. "Chess became like an illness," he said. "I wasn't even Salieri level, but I was good enough to obsess on it." He soon dropped out to play the game in Washington Square Park full time. This was followed by his first real job, as an assistant at the director Jonathan Demme's company; early on, he'd rebuffed Demme's compliments about some still photos he'd taken (Miller felt they were underexposed), and a few months later, he says, he was let go for just not being a very good assistant. That was also his last real job. Since then, Miller, who remains lithe and pensive at forty-four, has spent his time filming commercials, directing the highly regarded "Capote" (2005), and wandering the earth.

After loping through N.Y.U., he ducked into Ballato, an Italian joint he likes whose walls are studded with photos of celebrated visitors. The proprietor, a burly man named Emilio Vitolo, called out, "Bennett, I was watching Regis this morning? He went to see your movie? He raved about it on TV!"

"That's beautiful," Miller said, breaking into a smile. He murmured, "I'm shocked that Emilio watches TV. I brought Tom Hanks here once--there's a picture of him over there--and the next time I came back Emilio says"--Miller dipped into an Italian accent--" 'Bennett, your friend you brought? The guys in the kitchen say he played an astronaut in a movie.' "

Miller's conversation is full of thrumming silences, as he wheels like a locomotive in a roundhouse. "The original proprietor, John Ballato, was one of the witnesses in 'Reds,' " he said at last, heading down a new track. He beckoned the owner over to his table: "Emilio, who was John Ballato?"

"He was this old man right here"--Vitolo pointed to a smiling gent in a photo from 1978. "That's John Lennon behind him--he used to come in all the time."

"But why was John Ballato in the movie 'Reds'?" Miller asked.

Vitolo shrugged and said, "He was in the movie 'Reds' because he was a little comunista. He used to wear the big boots. Boots!"

Miller nodded sagely.

"How do you know he was in the movie 'Reds'?" Vitolo asked. …

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