What do you see when you gaze into the rippling, babbling, lush-and-beefy orange pectoral muscles of Carlos Alvarez?
Earlier this week, when Miami New Times broke the story of his participation (and victory!) in a bodybuilding competition last November, I was hypnotized by the former, infamously recalled mayor of Miami-Dade County and his Herculean torso. His mountainous bulges, his Cheetos-hued spray tan, and the fading tribal tattoo beneath it on his right upper arm — along with sundry anatomical details that we don’t have enough space to unpack — projected a psychic aura both stunningly bizarre and archetypically Miami.
With his palm-tree trunk thighs, Popeye biceps, and itty-bitty head symmetrically aligned with his teeny-weeny black Speedo, Alvarez resembled the exaggerative, distorted superheroes made typical by ’90s comic book illustrators like Rob Liefeld.
The novelty of bodybuilding does not outweigh that of any of the myriad, arbitrary, lifestyle-consuming ways people choose to spend their time and money. But the potent signification of a deposed mayor coming out of a two-year exile to enter — and win, no less — a bodybuilding contest, is, at the very least, extraordinarily notable. It also falls somewhere on the glorious-and-ambiguous spectrum bookended by that which is Seriously Depressing, and that which is Hilariously Surreal.
That novelty becomes even more pronounced when the spectacle is integrated into the larger, ridiculous Scarface vs. Scarface saga that pitted Old Miami politickin’ — the mayor, his cronies, his Marlins Park – against automobile mogul and football-team collector Norman Braman’s Bolivarian, history-seizing, independent agitation of the public against Alvarez. When a referendum finally made it on a ballot, and the city held a special election, 90 percent of the vote was in favor of sending the mayor to the chopping block. It was the second largest election recount in the history of the United States. And all it took was a million-dollar campaign from a man who used to own the Philadelphia Eagles.
But novelty is entertainment. I was experiencing shock. I was experiencing The Uncanny.
Sigmund Freud developed the psychological concept Das Unheimliche (“the opposite of what is familiar”) to fit within his (infinitely-flawed) school of psychoanalysis as an explosive collision between opposing subconscious forces.
According to Siggy, we experience The Uncanny when we encounter stimulus that reminds our active, daily-consciousness of the savagely impulsive, ragefully murderous, sexually deviant gimp-in-a-mask, freak-a-leak movie marathon that is perpetually screening in the human mind’s most repressed underground movie theaters (Imagine how sticky the floors are.). Our psyche’s Secret Police rush onto the scene and display little hesitation to whip out their batons and beat every sordid thought into guilty submission.
Of course, none of this is perceptible. The only manifestation of the psychic battleground Freud describes is a lightheaded tingle, goosebumps, or some other deep-rooted response to an eerie experience of strikingly alien strangeness mashed right up against primordial familiarity.
It was in the course of visually dissecting this mass of obsessively cultivated muscle that I found I could not escape that contradictory sensation. A former police chief and twice-elected mayor was disgraced in public by a millionaire, was completely invisible for two years, and then made his valiant return as a one-man Hans and Franz. By most rubrics, that would qualify as strange.
On a more subtle-psychic plane of knowledge and belief, a multidimensional history of the county that deposed him sprung forth from Alvarez’s six-pack-adorned solar plexus.
The first dimension is obvious. Our mighty legacy of partying, fashion, and pornography, and more recently established signifiers like LeBron James, the South Beach season of the Jersey Shore, and Ultra Music Festival, has made us synonymous with vanity, an extreme focus on body image and an addiction to attention, positive or negative.
The Magic City story is perfectly encapsulated by the subhead The Miami Herald ran with its coverage of our former mayor’s totally buff new look: “After almost two years of seclusion, recalled Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Alvarez is back in the spotlight as an amateur bodybuilding champion.”
There has not been a better representation of this city’s perpetual machismo peacock complex since Tony Montana met his doom in a coked-up blaze of inglorious egocentricity and perverse grandiosity. And as the “Carlos Alvarez: Body Builder” meme regurgitates its way around the internet, I wonder if Dade County itself looks proportionally ridiculous. Again.
The perpetual lust for notoriety overlaps with Miami’s self-obsession, most commonly expressed in an omnipresent skittish neurosis that demands constant affirmation that Our Towne stacks up to its peer metropolises around the country.
Miami’s obsession with itself stems from its isolation. It comes into play at every juncture: People come here for vacation, to get away, to smuggle drugs, to get off drugs, to seek political asylum, to die, and so on. The place we call “Here” is known all over the world as “There.” It’s somewhere else. If you keep something in isolation long enough, its behavior will become increasingly idiosyncratic, its bronzed muscles flexing for anyone who will look. Desperation will be all people see, but at least they’re looking, right?
–By Matt Preira