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Saturday, 10 September 2011

YouTube Treasures #2: Film - I Start Counting (1969)

As I mentioned before, YouTube is a repository of lots of cultural gems, a treasure trove of obscure and unobtainable film, music etc.  Yesterday I stumbled upon a forgotten film from the tail end of the swinging 60s, starring a very young Jenny Agutter, just before she made the perenially popular The Railway Children. The film was I Start Counting, an exploration of sexual awakening, a murder mystery - probably one of the first serial killer films - and a document of 60s social change.

I Start Counting  was directed by then up-and-coming director David Greene (The Shuttered Room, The Strange Affair), but it flopped and quickly disappeared from view, stalling his career somewhat. The reason for its commercial failure, I'd guess, is the hint of lechery in its exploration of a teenage girl's adolescent rites of passage. The promotional stills from the film actually exaggerated this aspect of the film, as if it was a selling point. More likely, it turned people off and made the film look more tawdry than it really is.

I Start Counting  takes a central focus somewhat reminiscent of Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt. In Shadow, a young girl comes to suspect that the handsome and charming uncle she adores is actually a murderer. In Counting, a young girl named Wynne (Agutter) is in love with her foster-brother, George (Bryan Marshall), but when a number of women are murdered in the neighbourhood, she notes a few circumstances that indicate he is the murderer. Unlike the Hitchcock film, there's an overtly sexual component in Wynne's feelings for George. As she becomes more convinced of his guilt, her fantasizing about him grows stronger, and she dreams that she can protect him from detection, and redeem him from his violent urges.

I Start Counting opens in Wynne's bedroom, and the predominance of white in the colour scheme signifies her innocence and childishness. The shots showing her get dressed verge on the territory of the exploitation genre, without ever quite "going there", as it were. Not quite exploitation, but a little risque for mainsteam audiences, and this is the line the film walks throughout. Quickly enough her incestuous desires are made clear, and George's suspect behaviour is also quickly indexed. Then we're introduced to Wynne's best friend, Corinne. Corinne is kind of a slut, not to put to fine a point on it. Her silly laugh, flirtatious behaviour and crass obsession with losing her virginity make her a counterpoint to Wynne, whose love for her brother is pure by comparison.

The film couldn't explore sex in the 60s without mentioning the Church, and there follows a funny scene in the girls' school when a priest comes to give a talk on sex education, but rather than educate he tries to fudge with talk of God's love and such, but the girls ask him some awkward questions. It's a nice piece of satire on sexual reticence, and one of a handful of nicely-judged comic scenes that appear in the film.

Mostly, though, this is a vehicle for Agutter, then just beginning to become a well-known face and name in Britain. She is both very attractive and possessed of a particular sincerity and ingenuousness - a potent combination. Her performance is excellent, delivering with great naturalism lines that could easily have created awkwarness or self-consciousness. Check out the scene when she arrives home drunk, for example. The charm of her performance easily carries the film.

Whether the film would be so watchable without Agutter at its centre is another question. It's hard to divorce the rest of the film from its star, and judge it on its own terms. Is it an exploration of sexuality or a male fantasy of female sexuality? I was sometimes reminded of the recent Black Swan, which was less an exploration of madness than a male fantasy of female sexual neurosis. In Counting we've got a beautiful young female protagonist whose romantic feelings lead her to excuse the violent acts she believes her foster-brother has committed. Violence is always near the surface in the depictions of male sexuality in the film, while the love of a beautiful woman is posited as the civilizing force that restrains the beast in man - rather Victorian, but perhaps not without some truth for all that.

But Counting shows enough insight into societal attitudes to sex, and into the psychology of sexuality, to be well worth a watch, and it's got a few funny scenes, too. And, of course, there's Jenny Agutter's performance. It's astonishing that this film is not on general release, and hasn't been, I believe, for many years. But that's where YouTube comes in, rescuing stuff like this from obscurity, and allowing it to be seen, completely free of charge, by anyone who cares to watch it. And in this case, this is a film that definitely deserves to be seen.