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“Every day my life counts, not just the ones when I’m with my man,” says conceptual photographer and social commentator Suzanne Heintz, creator of Life Once Removed, a bizarre, poignant and refreshing fifteen-year-long photo project that chronicles Heintz’s artificial life with mannequin Chauncey and their forever-young daughter, Mary Margaret.
Heintz purchased the mannequins at a retail liquidation outlet in Aurora after an argument with her mother about her marital status. (Heintz’s mother, by the way, doesn’t even remember that argument — which is kind of the point, says Heintz: “This so-called perfect life is so programmed into our society that people say things offhand and don’t even know what their comments are doing.”)
For over a decade, Heintz has staged the sort of memories that married friends post on Facebook, and she’s sent them to a growing list of family and friends via annual holiday cards. In 2010, the photographer, an art director for Starz by day, started creating videos to accompany her Christmas cards. That morphed into her first short: Playing House: Postcards from Paris. The film garnered praise at the Denver Film Society’s 2014 Voices Women + Film Festival.
Heintz’s latest installment, Playing House: The Vows, debuts at the 2015 Voices Women + Film Festival at the Sie FilmCenter at 4 p.m. Thursday, March 19, with a follow-up show on Sunday, March 22 at 1:45 p.m. preceding a special Q&A panel with Heintz and her mom. The short chronicles what’s supposed to be the best day of every woman’s life: the wedding.
Last June at the Grant-Humphreys Mansion, Heintz planned a wedding to Chauncey before family and friends – about twenty mannequins and a hundred people – with her real-life boyfriend serving as best man. Heintz’s relatives flew in from Arizona, Washington and New York to participate in the ceremony, and the tale unfolds in a visual interpretation of what the big day really means.
“The wedding is a huge symbol for the height of life expectations, and for what I’m talking about with life in general,” Heintz says.
Much as a bride gets swept away trying to manufacture her perfect day, Heintz, too, became a bit of a Bridezilla as she attempted to plan and execute a perfect photo shoot in front of one of her largest audiences yet. Explains Heintz, “It was extremely difficult to get the level of detail I’m used to because of all the moving pieces, and I think that’s what happens to the typical bride.”
The project took two days and approximately 31 hours of complete. “I was trying to pull off seven photos, a ceremony, the reception and the dance, and it was an incredible amount of work,” admits Heintz.
In the film’s sneak preview, you’ll notice Heintz is missing one of the basic bridal icons: “I explain that in the movie, and there are a couple of reasons I didn’t wear a white dress,” Heintz says. For starters, she and Chauncey were already married; they’d eloped the first go-around and, technically, were simply renewing their vows at the mansion.
The bigger reason for forgoing white, though, was more artistic. “I was trying to express that the dress is a representation of all of our expectations. It’s often the focal point,” Heintz says. “So the dress had to be spectacular and big and colorful! I wanted to look like a peacock.” She commissioned local designer Donna Savoy of Donna Beth Creations, who stayed up all night finishing the dress before the big day.
“Everything was planned down to the last minute, and it still went wrong,” Heintz continues. “Everything was off schedule, but that wasn’t the worst part.” The biggest bluncer? She screwed up her speech.
“I wanted to explain the meaning of the wedding to guests, and the speech meant so much to me,” says Heintz. She’d toiled over it for months, and had detailed notes on her iPhone — which shut down in the 98-degree heat! “I was in the middle of my speech when it melted,” Heintz recounts. “Of course, I didn’t have it memorized. When it shut down, I shut down!”
So she had to wing it. “I came up with the words; they weren’t perfect, and I struggled through it,” Heintz says, adding that at first, she was crushed. Later, though, it dawned on her: “It was an example of exactly what I’m trying to tell other people: you can’t plan perfect!”
In case you’re curious, Heintz and Chauncey didn’t end up actually tying the knot. When her brother, an attorney officiating at the wedding, asked is anybody objected, Heintz stepped in. She ended up leaving Chauncey at the altar, in fact, and walking back down the aisle with her real-life boyfriend (see above). The couple didn’t say their vows, and while Heintz says there won’t be wedding bells in their future, there’s still a whole lot of blissful, perfectly imperfect happiness.
That’s what the short’s intro – the one showcasing old genealogical charts that Heintz stumbled upon – is all about. “We want to force-fit ourselves into these fill-in-the-blank lines,” says Heintz. “The role of wife, mother, husband, etc. is the way we’ve come to understand our roles as humans. There’s a line waiting for your name, but I don’t fit into those lines, and many other people don’t fit into those lines.”
If Playing House sounds, well, juvenile, that’s because it is. The series title invokes images of children engaged in make-believe. “When you are little, you mimic what the previous generation is doing. And,” says Heintz, “As you grow up, you continue playing that role.”
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Hence the third, forthcoming installment in Heintz short trilogy. Playing House: The Next Generation will explore how we program youth. In the meantime, Heintz reminds us: “Quit clinging to pictures that have been programmed into your head by others or by yourself.”
For more information on Heintz, visit her website.
Follow Jamie Siebrase on Twitter.