Bert Gordon – Arch Villain: The Performance Of George C. Scott in The Hustler (1961)

by Paul Batters

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“You gotta be hard, Eddie”  – Bert Gordon (George C. Scott) The Hustler (1961)

How many stories feature the protagonist facing a villain? The character of the villain has been at the heart of storytelling since humans started telling them. The villain is an important part of the construct of storytelling and there is a range of reasons why.

In terms of human history, film is a very new method of telling story. But the importance of the villain as a crucial character still applies. Since the beginning of the film industry, we have seen heroes and heroines on the screen battle and attempt to overcome a villain hell-bent on the hero or heroine’s destruction and/or failure.  We often apply a range of adjectives and descriptors to the villain in a story and they remind us of our own darkness and the ugliness that humanity possesses. We ask the question ‘how can they do that?’, without asking ourselves the same question. What does it take to push a human into the darkness?

Villains come in the shape of murderers, criminals, monsters, serial killers, dictators, femme fatales, gangsters and even schoolyard bullies. Often they are visible and in some cases caricatures. Yet perhaps the most dangerous villain of all is the one that is not so visible – at least initially. They look like us. They ride the elevator into our workplace. They walk down the street and into the same cafes and order coffee as we do. And they even catch cold like us. Yet underneath they harbour black souls and are as destructive as a prehistoric beast arisen from its’ slumber. They use and crush their fellow humans for their own gain, with a callousness and cruelty that can steal one’s breath. They can entice us into their web without our knowing, buying into their charisma and believing their promises.

Bert Gordon in The Hustler (1961) is such a villain.

Written, produced and directed by Robert Rossen, The Hustler is a powerful film that examines human frailty in its’ pursuit for fulfilment and need for realising one’s self. Arguably, Paul Newman’s performance as ‘Fast’ Eddie Felson is perhaps his finest portrayal, playing a pool player existing on the edge of society.  His struggle to overcome the obstacles in his path, often flummoxed by his own passion becomes complicated by two relationships: one being Sarah (Piper Laurie) the woman who loves him and the second Bert Gordon (George C Scott), the man who wants to own and exploit him.

Our first glimpse of Bert Gordon sees him in his natural habitat, a card game. The fact that he’s drinking milk as he plays, suggests that Bert stays in control in a world where most are hard and heavy drinkers. A professional gambler, who knows the odds and plays to win, leaves the card game to watch Eddie play the legendary Minnesota Fats (Jackie Gleason), whom Bert ‘owns’ and bankrolls. 

Like a predator watching prey, Bert sits by quietly, his eyes gleaming – immaculately dressed and seemingly not perturbed by Eddie’s winning against Minnesota Fats. But Bert reads the situation like a pro, especially when Eddie’s ego gets the better off him and his winning streak begins to turn sour, assisted by his consumption of bourbon. Bragging, Eddie tells Minnesota Fats:

‘I’m the best you ever seen, Fats. I’m the best there is. Now even if you beat me, I’m still the best’.

We here Bert Gordon for the first time, making a cold and accurate assessment with a controlled growl of a voice, as he tells Fats:

Stay with this kid. He’s a loser’.

Despite directing his comment at Fats, it is clear that Bert is speaking to Eddie, already using a psychological switchblade on Eddie to push him into defeat. Or perhaps to test Eddie and see if he can win? Either way, it’s a taste of things to come.

Eddie soon finds himself involved with Sarah (Piper Laurie) a woman who ‘has problems’, including drinking and loneliness.  They are both lonely people, but they also seek different things. But there is no doubt that Sarah loves him and has her own problems with accepting this, partially out of fear of losing him, as well as her own personal inadequacies. In the end, Bert and Sarah will fight for Eddie but for very different reasons.

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When Eddie encounters Bert again, it is at a card game and Bert decides to school Eddie on the art of winning.  Bert likes any game, not only where there’s ‘action’ but where he can control the odds and win. In the process of maintaining control, Bert drinks milk claiming that ‘it’s good for you’ and though he can drink, he does so only on a rare occasion. Again, he calls Eddie a loser who looks for an excuse to lose, talking straight and hard that it takes character to win, despite having all the talent in the world. Bert knows that Eddie is good and points out that he had never seen Fats hooked before but as he also declares in his schooling of Eddie, ‘you don’t win by yardage’. The way to judge a winner, he adds, is by who is standing at the end. Refusing to buy Bert’s terms, Eddie tells him aggressively to ‘kiss off’ but Bert is not perturbed and smiles at him like a shark showing his teeth. Bert offers Eddie a warning that ‘the word is out’ on him and he could get himself hurt. Sure enough, Eddie is going to get hurt and while hustling pool for cheap money, gets set upon. Not only is he beaten up but his thumbs get broken. It is a brutal and vicious attack that leaves Eddie helpless as he stumbles back to Sarah’s door.

After a slow and difficult recovery, where Eddie has had time to think, he incredibly seeks out Bert and offers the revelation that ‘twenty percent of something is better than a hundred percent of nothing’. There is something else that both Eddie and Bert are hungry for, despite Eddie realizing too late what the price is for that hunger – and that is to win.

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Bert has plans to go down south to Kentucky during the Derby and use his connections to start making money through Eddie. He points out to Eddie that he always picks up the tab: signifying that far from being a generous man, it is more the case that Bert pays for what he owns in the same way that a horse–owner takes care of his horse. But there is a complication in Bert’s plans, as Eddie wants Sarah to come along. Bert recognizes what Sarah is – a danger to his plans to own Eddie outright. Sarah is a rival for Eddie’s heart and soul and love is the one factor that Bert cannot connect with nor have in his way. As far as Bert is concerned, Sarah must be removed from the situation.

Travelling to Kentucky by train, Bert starts his campaign early even though there is the appearance of friendliness. His cold, evil persona is evident at every moment, with his shark-like smile ever apparent. Leaning back to eye her like a predator eyeing a weakness, Bert is sizing her up for the kill and considering the way in which he will dispose of her. He drops the word ‘cripple’ during a discussion, knowing that Sarah has a slight limp, which she is self-conscious of. Eddie stands up for her but Sarah tries to show she isn’t bothered, despite understanding full well what Bert is up to. He will be dismissive of her presence by pretending not to remember her name, which may appear like bullying but it is a slow kill where he first intends to break her, before he ensures his personal victory.

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But the veneer drops along with the smile when the two are alone in the hotel they have arrived at in Kentucky. The pretense also drops away as Bert shows his true colours. Voice hard and rough, Bert stakes his flag in the ground and growls at her:

‘Listen, Miss Lady Bird. You’re here on a rain-check and I know it. You’re hangin’ on by your nails. You let that glory whistle blow loud and clear for Eddie, and you’re a wreck on a railroad track. You’re a horse that finished last. Now don’t make trouble, Miss Lady Bird. Live and let live – while you can!’

The menace behind the mask is frightening and Sarah is intelligent enough to see what she is up against. It is a warning above anything else. It initially appears that Bert is drawing a line in the sand and will even tolerate her presence.  But before long, Bert begins his dismantling of Sarah, pulling her fragile psyche apart like a boy pulling wings from a fly. It is a deliberate breaking down of her defenses and a method of prying her from Eddie, so that Bert has complete control over his investment.

It is at the party where Bert will show what a cold villain he truly is. The real battle for Eddie’s soul begins when he plays the party host in a game of billiards. It is a brilliant power play on Bert’s part and Eddie becomes the battleground where Sarah and Bert will do battle. Sarah throws herself at Eddie’s feet, openly attacking Bert and imploring Eddie to get away from him. Newman beautifully imparts Eddie’s acceptance of Sarah’s truth but like an addict who cannot turn away from the terrible affliction that grips him, and his self-disgust finds him turning to Bert. Like a drug-pusher, Bert casually knows how to hook Eddie in and win him over anything that Sarah has to offer, even truth. He does not even deny what Sarah declares, knowing full well that all it will take is to feed Eddie’s addiction and Bert will win the day.

Sure enough, Sarah leaves the battlefield broken but the war is not yet over. However, she will make a terrible sacrifice to save Eddie.

The victorious and satisfied Fast Eddie Felson cleans the party host out and Bert seems satisfied as well. Suggesting to Eddie that he’ll give the kiss off to Sarah for him, Bert reminds Eddie that ‘you need to be hard’. Eddie’s non-committal to a decision shows his lack of courage in making a final choice – he wants the action of the game but cannot bring himself to tear Sarah away or hold onto her either. Eddie decides to walk back to the hotel. In the meantime, Bert returns and the final tragedy will unfold.

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Without giving too much away, it is a moment where our admiration for Sarah reaches its’ greatest height as she ‘wins the war’ for Eddie’s sake even if it means losing everything. Sarah knows who Bert is and when he claims he ‘only wants the money’ Sarah smiles wryly and accurately describes Bert as a ‘Roman’, who wants to win everything. Bert takes the bait and shows his true colours, revealing the cold, hard villain that underlies the supposed hard-business never personal façade that gives him his edge.

Eddie learns his lesson in a hard yet life-defining way. There will be a final showdown where Eddie will reclaim his sense of self but it will be a Pyrrhic victory. Eddie has learned who Bert Gordon is but has learned it too late. He tells Bert that ‘the cost is too high’ and Bert relents but gives him the quiet warning, smiling all the while:

George C. Scott’s performance is one of incredible measure, where his cold, calculating persona is superbly coloured by a dangerous charisma and a commanding presence. Scott gives a clear sense of Bert’s villainous nature, one which needs to win completely – to not only pocket the winnings from the action but to destroy those around him as well. Eddie’s final assessment of Bert shows that he has finally learned what Sarah was trying to reveal about Bert, that beneath the mask the face is twisted and evil.  Eddie turns Bert’s words on himself and calls Bert a loser, declaring that Bert is dead inside and can’t live unless he makes everything else dead around him. Bert seems chastened but like any villain, who is even momentarily beaten, he will continue in his ways, for there is no other path for him.

The Hustler is an outstanding film with penultimate performances from Paul Newman as Fast Eddie and Piper Laurie as Sarah. But George C. Scott steals almost every scene that he is in, with the subtleties of a super-villain whose wielding of cold manipulation like a weapon is akin to watching a master at work. The truth remains that for the hero to shine, the obstacles that he or she must face must be great in their scope. The ultimate obstacle for the hero is the villain – and in The Hustler, that obstacle in Paul Newman’s way is perfectly personified by the performance of George C. Scott as Bert Gordon.

This article is an entry into the Great Villain Blogathon of 2019, kindly hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows And Satin  and Kristina of Speakeasy.  Many thanks for letting me take part! Please click on the following link to read some fantastic articles on great villains in classic film – Great Villain Blogathon of 2019

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.

 

Alfie (1966): Michael Caine and the meaning of life

by Paul Batters

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‘I don’t know, it seems to me that if they ain’t got you one way, they’ve got you another. So what’s the answer? That’s what I keep asking myself. What’s it all about?’ Alfie (Michael Caine) in Alfie

To declare that Michael Caine is a cinema icon is an understatement. For over six decades, he has graced our screens in a myriad of roles and has been unafraid to tackle characters that others would have not dared touch. And he has certainly not slowed down. Still seeking challenges and refusing to believe that age is a determinant for ambition, Michael Caine is very active and has stated that retirement is simply not an option.

It has been quite some years since Caine appeared in his breakout role in Alfie (1966) but it is easy to see why it made him a star. As the Cockney Lothario who charms his way through a bevy of women, Caine found himself a major star upon the film’s release. Caine himself stated that he never imagined Alfie would be anything other than a British film for British audiences that would do modest business. But this started to change during filming, with Caine pointing that despite initial doubts, mainly about himself, the feeling soon developed that ‘maybe we got something here’. For Caine, his realisation that they ‘might be on a winner’ was when he heard the laughter from those watching the rushes.

Quite a number of reviewers and critics have stated that Alfie is a timeless classic, and this reviewer certainly agrees. It is more than the story of a self-centred Cockney charmer who leads a hedonistic and selfish lifestyle. It is also more than a walk-through London in the Swinging Sixties. Alfie poses questions and challenges for audiences to ponder – today as much as it did in the 1960s.

Despite its’ reputation, Alfie is not a film which celebrates hedonism or sexual exploitation; nor does it set the main character up as a hero to be worshipped. On the surface, Alfie is a character who uses his charm, charisma and good looks to seduce women and use them in every way he can for his own pleasures. They cook his food, wash his clothes and of course provide him with plenty of sex. And certainly, there was something enticing about the character’s swinging lifestyle, humour and intriguing nature that made the film a hit. As biographer William Hall has noted, ‘Women adored the hooded gaze, the slightly mocking approach, the deadpan throwaway lines. Men in their turn had a sneaking admiration for the self-made cavalier, raunchy, honest to a fault with himself, unashamed of his own rough edges and totally his own master’.

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Yet despite this, Alfie’s character arc shows a man who does not have it all. A feminist critique could offer plenty in terms of the male gaze of back-slapping admiration of a man bedding many women, fitting the sexual fantasy of partners-a-plenty. But the film questions whether this is admirable. Indeed, Alfie is a condemnation of that very sentiment, with Michael Caine himself describing Alfie as a ‘no-good layabout’ and a despicable individual.

What makes Alfie work is its’ incredible authenticity, which gives the film its’ lasting strength. There’s no pretence to Alfie and the brutal honesty of the character removes any possibility of superficiality. This is achieved from the very opening scene of the film, when we are introduced to the main character by Alfie himself. Breaking the fourth wall, Alfie narrates in real time and tells his story as it happens, complete with his deepest insights, observations and philosophical interpretation. Alfie’s intimacy with the audience is a fundamental factor in the film’s magic – he speaks to us as individuals rather than a whole group or crowd. It’s highly personal, intensely intimate and thus honest (at least to a point). The audience becomes Alfie’s ‘confessor’ and at times it feels like we become his ‘best mate’. Yet Alfie could just as well be speaking to a mirror of himself, seeking to justify his thoughts, feelings and actions, and therefore bouncing his thoughts around to try and gain some perspective.

Alfie’s philosophy of life and his ideas on women become obvious immediately. The audience first discovers that Alfie is having an affair with a married woman named Siddie (Millicent Martin) whom he objectifies by calling her ‘it’, which is perhaps one of the most offensive aspects of his behaviour. Yet his objectification of women is also Alfie’s armour against intimacy and deeper emotion. After dropping Siddie off at a train station, he goes to see Gilda (Julia Foster) who is deeply in love with Alfie and very much in need of more than what he gives her. She pushes away a kind and gentle bus conductor named Humphrey (Graham Stark) who loves her as a result. Like all the other women he uses, Gilda is also objectified and treated miserably. But Alfie simply states that a woman can be quite happy ‘if she knows her place’.

Yet Alfie’s relationship with Gilda is about to change when he discovers that she is pregnant. It is an unwanted complication to his easy-going life, and he makes this clear as he gives the audience a run-down of the many women he is regularly seeing and having sex with whilst also seeing Gilda. He tries to break it off as well as convince Gilda to give the child away but to her credit she wants to keep the child. The eventual birth of a baby boy sees something happen in Alfie, which he admits has broken through his armour and will haunt him throughout the film. He becomes attached to the boy named Malcolm, even though he still objectifies Malcolm’s mother. Alfie explains that any ‘bird’ can be replaced but a child is special and individual. Yet he is not beyond disowning Malcolm as ‘my sister’s (child)’ when picking up a woman in the park.

His attachment to Malcolm will also not prevent him walking out on Gilda and his son, when the challenge to the status quo arises. Humphrey has been calling on Gilda and declares he loves both her and the boy. It becomes a line in the sand which Alfie refuses to cross and reveals Alfie’s despicable nature when he says to Gilda, ‘I don’t know what love is the way you birds go on about it’. Neither does he care about or want Gilda’s respect, to which Alfie declares ‘I don’t want no bird’s respect, I wouldn’t know what to do with it’. For Alfie a woman is present to serve his base needs and nothing else. It’s a terrible indictment of the emptiness and emotional void underneath Alfie’s charm and charisma. Alfie’s abandoning Gilda, however, will not ease his problems and his peace of mind will not be eased either.

A moment of vulnerability highlights the fragility of Alfie’s sense of self when he discovers he has tuberculosis and has a mental collapse. The scene in which he discovers he is sick is also underscored by his leaving Gilda and her refusal to take him back but more so by losing the relationship with his son, Malcolm. The lead-up to discovering he has ‘shadows on his lungs’ is brilliant and the interplay between the doctor (Eleanor Bron) and Alfie is an incredible and masterful display of dialogue from Caine. It is a combination of humour and tragedy in the best traditions of Greek drama and certainly highlights the absurd parallels of both running alongside each other.

While convalescing though, Alfie pulls himself back together and returns to form in his seducing of his nurse Carla (Shirley Anne Field) much to the horror of his fellow patient Harry (Alfie Bass) and his wife Lily (Vivien Merchant). Alfie tries to impart his cynical philosophy on Harry via a cruel hypothetical scenario of Harry dying and his wife and kids forgetting him. Naturally, Harry becomes deeply upset and his usual kind and humble demeanour breaks into a violent attack on Alfie, which is quickly subdued due to his illness. It is a poignant moment which highlights the damage that Alfie inflicts along the way:

Perhaps the most appalling act Alfie carries out is the seduction of Harry’s sheltered and loving wife, Lily. Taking advantage of her loneliness and vulnerability, Alfie exploits her and adds that ‘it will round off the tea nicely’. His unthinking cruelty is also revealed in his blunt assessment of Lily’s sexual experience (or lack thereof) after he seduces her. Lily woundedly replies that she has never been with anyone but Harry, her husband and the audience cannot help but feel dismal towards Alfie.

Alfie certainly is a predator, using his guile as well as his charm to entice women into his world. Whilst some of his partners are willing and seeking a good time, others are exploited in their vulnerability like Lily, as well as a young girl from up north named Annie (Jane Asher) whom he picks up at a truck stop. Assessing that she is running away from a failed relationship back home, Alfie uses his wiles to manipulate Annie and she ends up not only as a domestic servant but a sexual object for his satisfaction. Reading her diary and picking up her sadness from the songs she listens to, Alfie states that ‘it punishes itself’ by washing, cooking and cleaning’ (and giving her body for sex) which Alfie happily obliges to his advantage.

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But again, Alfie’s vulnerability will be tested when he also begins a relationship with an older American woman named Ruby (Shelley Winters) whom he seems to respect because ‘she knows what she wants and she’s gonna get it’. Despite claiming he could easily settle down with Ruby, he still objectifies her, repeating ‘she’s in beautiful condition’, as if she’s a car with a great chassis and a good motor running.

Yet the most controversial moment of the film (in the context of the 1960s) is the abortion scene where Lily comes to Alfie’s flat, pregnant and ready to meet a pre-arranged abortionist (Denholm Elliott). Even at this point, he accepts no responsibility and calls her a ‘fallen woman’ and that he is just ‘trying to help a friend’. Alfie makes the honest assessment, though deflecting it as being male, that like ‘all men’ he only wants the pleasure and no part of the pain. Yet when Alfie sees the aborted foetus, the mask drops and he breaks down in tears, fleeing his flat. Distraught, he realises the enormity of what has happened to the one friend that the audience sees he has, admitting his selfishness: “I was crying for my bleeding self”. Again, it’s hard evidence that Alfie damages those he is involved with.

The trauma of the abortion, combined with Annie finally leaving him after he drives her away, finds Alfie driven to seeking deeper meaning in his life and he decides to ask Ruby to marry him. Yet for once, Alfie will be the one used and deeply wounded. The one woman Alfie claims to respect and love is also in bed with another man when he arrives to see her. Ruby tells Alfie that he’s too old – a cruel rejection which Alfie can do nothing about. It is the turning point of the film which leaves Alfie reaping what he has sown, in a twist of dramatic irony that is all too obvious to him as well as the audience.

The final scene sees him standing near when where the audience saw him at the start. Incidentally, he sees Siddie but she has no interest in him, seemingly after he has let her down. It is a strong revelation that change has occurred for all the characters and those that have crossed paths with Alfie end up the worse for it. Though scarred by him, they become emboldened to do something about their lives – while Alfie remains trapped in his limited world. Gilda discovers her self-respect and finds happiness with Humphrey. From her awful pain grows a demand for respect in their relationship and the realisation that she deserves more than what Alfie is offering. Annie eventually leaves with a quiet dignity well beyond her years. Harry is cuckolded and Lily forced to have an abortion. Even Siddie loses respect for him and decides to invest her time and emotions into her husband.

Indeed, there are many others that Alfie has let down and the audience witnesses their feelings towards him. The waitress at the truck stop seems to be pleased that he may get into trouble after she has also been stood up. The driver he steals Annie from eventually physically attacks Alfie. Gilda certainly loses respect for him and it is doubtful if Annie ever respected him at all. Two acquaintances are able to easily exploit his fragile ego, which do not suggest friendship of any sort. Even the crowd that cheer him at the truck stop, are cheering his sexual exploits but is this something that suggest an honourable man? Ultimately, Alfie is a man without honour, whose words and actions reflect a selfish, self-centred and irresponsible man without any concern for the impacts of his actions on others.

Worse still, Alfie is ultimately a lonely man trying to fill a void which has been consciously or inadvertently created by himself. He seems to have only one friend, who is also a Cockney con-artist. At the end of the film, the void is worse than ever and Alfie is left alone and despondent, a victim of his own personal philosophy on life. It is not a case of ‘karma’ finally getting him but that Alfie’s own choices have led him to this point. There is no fulfilment in his life and Alfie makes the point that one would think he’s had the best of it and come out in front because he has taken so much from others and given little or nothing in return. Yet, he does not have peace of mind. And his final question ‘what’s it all about?’, muttered by Alfie as he pets a lonely stray dog, may suggest that perhaps he has learned something and could transform himself, after all.

Alfie is a film which succeeds because it’s an incredibly well-crafted film and deceptively so. Director and producer Lewis Gilbert crafts a story where we alternate between liking a loveable rogue yet seeing a cad at the same time. The dialogue is tight and natural, driving the story along without pretension. The supporting cast is incredibly strong and even though the likes of Shelley Winters and Denholm Elliott play small roles, they are crucial ones and their impact is central to the story. Caine in his autobiography believes that Elliot acted him off the screen and gave high praise to the now deceased actor.

The outstanding score was provided by jazz legend Sonny Rollins and Caine would also state that he became a jazz fan as a result. Rollins’ depth and sensitivity underscores key moments in the film, which give the story a deeper impact. And of course, the title track written by Burt Bacharach, would be sung by Cilla Black to promote the film in England and by Cher for the U.S release. Personally, I am not a huge fan of Cher but she delivers a knock-out performance.

But ultimately, the film belongs to Michael Caine and his turn as Alfie is an incredible feat of acting. There is such impressive balance in his performance that the audience is torn between loving Alfie and wanting to knock his block off. The delivery of the dialogue is done with amazing precision, finesse and talent, and with such natural feeling. Caine has to work between the action on the screen and the personal asides to the camera, which he achieves with amazing fluidity, allowing the audience to slip in between effortlessly. It is an incredibly far more demanding role than what it may seem and Caine delivers such a natural performance that it is easy to forget this. As a result, it is the perfect evidence of a strong actor who can draw us into the journey.  Caine would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, which he would not win. Yet his turn as Alfie is an Oscar-winning performance and it should go down as ‘one that got away’.

Alfie is a far more layered film than it may initially appear, and whilst often humorous, it does challenge the nature of human selfishness and individual desire, hedonism and the concept of what happiness truly means. Ultimately, we are all challenged to contemplate our own roles in our personal relationships and life journey. Like Alfie, we find ourselves reflecting on our lives and asking ‘what it’s all about’?

 

This review of Alfie (1966) has been submitted to the The Second Marvellous Michael Caine Blogathon kindly hosted by Realweegiemidget Reviews. Thank you so much for hosting and allowing me to be part of this great blogathon! Please click on the link to read the other great entries on the wonderful Michael Caine.

Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.