Film Studies: Was this the most pretentious British film ever made?

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Some people will tell you that the movie Performance gives you a good deal to think about. I should hope so, because you've got to have something to do while you're sitting through such a load of rubbish.

Some people will tell you that the movie Performance gives you a good deal to think about. I should hope so, because you've got to have something to do while you're sitting through such a load of rubbish.

I know, that's not what you expect of a classic being re-released by the BFI. But I can feel that old south London attitude creeping back at the thought of that picture. Performance has the posh weed smell of London in the late Sixties - with the lads winning the World Cup, and Chelsea bringing panache to the other end of the Fulham Road. The Stones arrested in West Wittering, and Marianne Faithfull wearing a fur rug. Brian Jones fading away.

And Performance is this film they shot in London in the summer of 1968 - actually shot it in houses in Notting Hill, when Notting Hill was on the dodgy side and the cinema there was still called the Imperial.

What's it all about? Well, I always said, whatever you wanted it to be about. But actually it's got a nice, simple plot: there's this gangster Chas (James Fox), a bit of a hitter, and he gets out of line. Instead of going to stay with his Auntie Mary in Barnstaple, he tries to move into the basement flat at 81 Powis Square in a house owned by Turner (Mick Jagger), a has-been rock singer living with a couple of birds, playing mind games, doing all the drugs they can get and reading Jorge Luis Borges. Some people said they were depraved - but in south London it was perfectly plain that they were just pretentious gits.

Which brings us to the people who made the film. You have to remember that this was 1968. You'd got your Week End, Point Blank, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Chelsea Girls (the New York Chelsea that time). It was as if you could do anything with film: hop around in time, dream sequences - never mind the story - and a lot of sex and violence. Which meant that almost anyone could do a picture. Exhibit number one: Donald Cammell, who could have modelled for Pretentious Git in one of Francis Bacon's paintings. He was a gent - far too educated to be a film-maker. First of all, he was Scottish, which is a leg up; and then he was from a wealthy family that had lost its money. And he was raised in highly artistic and intellectual circles. Second, he could draw like an old master. Third, he never could get enough sex or drugs.

In addition to which, he had this friend, David Litvinoff, the most brilliant nutter anyone had ever met. He would talk a blue streak about the most amazing stuff, always jumping from this to that. When Performance came out, there were critics who said, "Aha! Note the leaping editorial style, the self-interruption, the cross-streaming of consciousness" - and before I'd sniffed the film, I said, "That is your David Litvinoff." Well, David was the whole film: he knew all your books and authors, but he knew the Krays, too - Reggie and Ronnie - very naughty boys who'd cut you up with a sword. And so David was the catalyst - he just brought the whole thing together. And that's why David gets a credit on the picture as dialogue coach and technical adviser. And well deserved.

Now, Donald had never done anything with film. But there was this Yank in London, Sanford Lieberson, who was some sort of producer. And he got Warner Brothers to put up money for it. More than a million dollars! Asking for it, wasn't it? Except that they all said to Donald, since you're so ignorant, mate, how about a co-director? And what about Nicolas Roeg? He was the best cameraman in Britain then, and very keen to direct. So they did it together and Nic was the cameraman.

Of course, it was meant to be Jagger and Brando. Donald did a treatment - I don't believe there was ever what you'd call a script - titled The Liars and sent it to Brando. Turned them down, thank God, because he'd have wanted the million himself, and that's when Jimmy Fox came along and he's flat-out the best thing in the picture. Not that it was easy, mind you.

Jimmy was a very nice guy, but he had got into bad habits in the film business - ever since The Servant (now there's a picture for you, and one Donald had very much in mind, if you ask me).

Anyway, Donald was a stirrer. He had wanted Mia Farrow and Tuesday Weld as the two girls. But somehow or other they heard it was a delicate proposition. So Donald used Anita Pallenberg as one of Turner's women just because she was Keith Richard's girlfriend. So Keith was stewing outside the house in his Rolls, because he'd told Mick not to do the film in the first place.

Acting was for ponces! And there was Mick and Anita naked all the time. And Jimmy got caught up in that. Not to mention that Donald's girlfriend, the French girl, Michèle Breton, who never acted before or since. What was going on off camera was the real performance: it was the start of that feeling that being on a film set was more fun than watching the film.

As Marianne Faithfull said later, and she was a smart girl (she had the rug because those summer nights in West Wittering get so raw), she called it "an allegory of libertine Chelsea life in the late Sixties, with its baronial rock stars, wayward jeunesse dorée, drugs, sex and decadence." Well, Jimmy Fox, not long after it was done, he went to Christ. Didn't work for years. But then came back better than ever.

And now they're bringing it back! You have to laugh after critics like John Simon slagged it off. "The most loathsome film of all," he called it.

Which is silly in view of what we've had to suffer since. If you ask me, the first half, with the gangsters, is nice and comical, and I especially like Johnny Shannon as Harry Flowers. I know there were a lot of the heavy boys who appreciated the film and its way of showing that a rascal could still give you a funny line now and then.

It's the stuff in the house that's rotten. Maybe it is from Borges, but he was blind, he didn't have to watch it. And Mick, bless him, he never could act a toss. He sings once, "Memo from Turner", and that's so terrific you wonder why Turner is supposed to be a has-been - or why the whole thing wasn't a musical. If you've ever known any gangsters you know they reckon they ought to be on the stage (that's the thing I like about Love, Honour and Obey, where the lads really want to be The Crazy Gang). No. Performance was the first properly pretentious film made in Britain. And nowadays, you hardly see a gangster in a British film without having to know what he's reading and how he gets on with his shrink. Keep Borges out of prison libraries is what I say.

'Performance' (18) is out now in selected cinemas