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Into the Light

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Before tackling his role in the romantic drama “At First Sight” as a blind massage therapist who regains his vision after an experimental operation, Val Kilmer immersed himself in the world of the sight-impaired.

That universe, though, is not unknown to him because he has a blind friend in New Mexico. “I was familiar with a lot of behavior [of the blind],” Kilmer said. Still, he sought advice from his friend, as well as a real blind massage therapist. He also spent time chatting with Shirl and Barbara Jennings, the real-life couple on whose lives “At First Sight” is based.

During his research, Kilmer discovered that “there are surprising similarities [among the blind people] even though the masseuse was from New York, Shirl is a Southerner and my friend is a Native American. There are certain similarities in movement and even in speech pattern, which was unusual.”

Shirl and Barbara Jennings visited the set twice during production last year. The couple, who have been married seven years, believe Kilmer did a good job of capturing Shirl’s qualities. “I thought I was up there doing it myself,” said the 58-year-old massage therapist.

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Kilmer also has high praise for the input he received from Paul Rutowsky, a blind jazz musician who has been a massage therapist in White Plains, N.Y., for the last three years. Rutowsky worked with Kilmer as well as with co-star Mira Sorvino on the film.

Rutowsky, who has been blind since birth, said Kilmer was very interested in his “attitude,” as well as how Rutowsky learned massage therapy.

“Obviously, when you don’t have a visual mind-set, you have to be taught differently,” Rutowsky said. “People who are sighted know very little about blindness, so you basically have to educate them and make it easier for them to help you.”

Before production began last January, Rutowsky went to a New York hotel room where he massaged Kilmer’s assistants, while the actor, director Irwin Winkler and producer Rob Cowan observed.

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“I am not used to having people watching,” he said. “Val was very observant and then watched the video [of the event].”

The two also hung out together for several hours. “He asked me a lot of questions about daily living and how I perceive certain things,” Rutowsky said. “I don’t have a visual mind-set, so everything is perceived from the other four senses. If someone gives me directions to get to a certain place, I think of myself walking with my dog to that place.”

Just as Kilmer’s Virgil has a hard time coping with being sighted, so did Shirl Jennings, who, as did the character in the film, regained his sight after surgery. “I was so used to being blind,” Jennings said. “I can see pretty good right now.”

“When a change that is that major takes place, it changes the dynamics of a relationship,” said Barbara Jennings, 51. “It was extremely difficult for both of us to adjust, especially him. It took years and years.”

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Rutowsky said that if he were given the opportunity of sight, he would “be willing to take the chance, but it would be difficult because all of my concepts would be shot to hell. When I think of my guide dog, I don’t see my dog. I think of myself touching him or walking with him with the harness handle in my hand, so everything would change and I would have to relearn. But I would be curious to know how things look and see if I could develop the visual concepts at this late stage.”

Though Rutowsky has been able to accomplish a lot in his life, he said there is still prejudice against the blind.

“I think you are an enigma,” he explained. “A lot of people don’t really know what is going on with the blind person and they use negative transference. They say, ‘Oh my God, if I were blind I don’t know how I could function.’ I say to them, ‘You’re not, so don’t think that way.’ If you are blind, you are a human being experiencing the same things we are all feeling. You just happen not to see. A feeling is a feeling.”

Barbara Jennings echoed Rutowsky’s sentiments. “I think many times sighted people do not know how to react to a blind person,” she said. “They don’t know [he or she is] a person who happens to be blind.”

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Rutowsky said he was happy to be part of “At First Sight.” In fact, Kilmer’s black lab guide dog in the film is named after Rutowsky’s own black lab, Pierce. He also said he believes the film will serve to educate the non-blind.

“This is something which will make blindness in a strange sort of way a little bit more commercial in the sense that people will want to know and learn more and won’t maybe be as tentative about the situation.”


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