Mary Gaitskill

Human Machines: Nowhere Girls, Heartbreak


B-Movie, “Nowhere Girl” (1982); images from “Metropolis” by Fritz Lang

This combination of two small, beautiful things — ancient film clip and 80s pop song — is visually about a human and a machine, a human trying to waken humanity in a machine. Aurally, its about a human trying to waken feeling in another human. The human in the song is a girl who is acting like a machine, that is, robotically repeating a pattern of life that doesn’t allow anyone or anything to touch her.

The pathos and fun of film and song put together is partly in the contrast between the demon-faced, dead-limbed scientist (all sulpher-eyed evil plus open-mouthed buffoonery: ‘What about this pronged thing? Maybe I’ll stick that in this other thing! Yeah!’), and the glowing mystery of the machine.

The mash-up is not about “metal and technology crashing into flesh,” as described in Markus Kirschner’s “F#@&ing Machines.” The song is about the mechanical nature of human feeling and non-feeling, a theme deliciously present in the music of the song even more than the words; delicate, plaintive melody expressed in manic synthpop. The clip is from a movie about powerful people trying to seduce and control other people through a machine that will mechanically trigger raw emotion.

This is seduction at its most basic; the seducer has less actual feeling than does his or her object, and so can artfully present a mechanical imitation designed to waken and then manipulate the real thing — which then, curiously, feeds the machine.

Together song and flim clip are playfully and incidentally about the machine that is us. Or part of us. Being human machines, it’s hard to say when we are controlled by, say, the machine of instinct or when we are nonmechanically responding to love. Or hate. Or seduction. Or something else.


Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner: Retiring Zhora” (1982)

This is a scene from “Blade Runner,” a movie based on Philip K. Dick‘s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” The plot concerns a slave class of androids who, because they have developed the ability to feel, have become dangerous, and so must be hunted down by hired killers like the one played by Harrison Ford.

Stories about machines who turn out to have feelings will always be poetically fascinating not because (to paraphrase Kirschner) we are embracing the fake, but because what is fake and what is real in a human is sometimes impossible to separate, and so sometimes impossible to differentiate. Machines are in some ways the opposite of the vulnerable body; in other ways, they are a reflection of its nature. Sometimes the feeling machine is dangerous; sometimes it is poignant.


brokenheart, “My Wife Is Having An Affair” (2009)

I find this almost too painful to look at; it feels a little obscene to use it in this context. I mean no disrespect to the man who made it, who did, after all, display it for public viewing. What I find astonishing about it: whatever its maker’s intentions, it is a picture of someone whose human feeling has been so badly hurt that he has for the purposes of this video become, in sight and sound, as a machine.

Pain is a purely animal/human experience; no machine feels pain. Yet emotional pain in humans sometimes takes on a rote, compulsive quality, something people keep helplessly repeating or referring back to for an impossible-to-understand complex of reasons that over time takes on a life of its own and mechanically operates regardless of what the hurt person wants or thinks he wants. In other words, the human becomes a screaming creature caught in the cogs and wheels of the machine his own feelings brought into being — or is it his reaction to his feelings that have brought it into being?

When I first watched the heart-broken man, I was first struck by the way he described his relationship to his wife, in terms of marriage vows, obeying the rules of the contract, refraining from abusing her, the good financial situation he provided, his amazement that she would desire someone who could “not even afford his own place.” As hurt for him as I felt, his ideas of relationship seemed mechanical, unaware that passion or love has nothing to do with things like vows or good financial situations. But as he continued, it was impossible not to hear that this man’s love for his wife is powerful, pure and real; it is also mysterious, and he is only expressing it in the language he has at hand, which even he probably knows is inadequate.

But what if the reason the wife can’t feel it any more is that, as strong and pure as it is, it’s somehow become detached from her yet continues pumping away regardless of her? After all, the heart, which we traditionally speak of as the locus of our deepest feelings, is a kind of functional little machine, complete with valves.

The second thing that struck me was much more sad: That he needs to express himself into a YouTube machine because he has no one close to talk to.


Ridley Scott, “Blade Runner Final Scene” (1982)

This is the last scene from “Blade Runner.” The android, at the moment of triumph over its adversary, has run out of juice and expired, choosing finally to spare his enemy in a display of humanity more human than anyone has shown him. The fake has turned out to contain something more real than “real” understood, and not because the fake was somehow better: its motor has simply broken down and loosed its metal claw.

The deepest reality is finally glimpsed as it disappears, much as we might glimpse a pure and ephemeral feeling flitting through the unbearably complicated and inadequate machine of our fleshly brain, our wind-up personality.


Mgawl singing “Nowhere Girl” by B-Movie

– Mary Gaitskill

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Mary Gaitskill is the author of the novels: "Veronica," "Two Girls, Fat and Thin," and "The Mare." She has also written three books of stories: "Bad Behavior," "Because They Wanted To," and "Don't Cry," and a book of essays, entitled "Somebody with a Little Hammer." More Mary Gaitskill here.