David Lynch and the 'Twin Peaks' of Iowa
Fairfield, Ia. – It's easier to find a "damn fine cup of coffee" here than in other Iowa towns two or three times the size.
At least a few top-notch coffee shops surround the town square — not to mention a vast array of vegetarian and organic cuisine far beyond the staple pork tenderloin or rural fixture of "Taco Tuesday."
It's all part of the familiar plotline about how Fairfield, pop. 9,447, has evolved in the last 40 years into a surprising cosmopolitan oasis on the prairie thanks to the global influx of followers of the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They practice transcendental meditation (TM) — at least 20 minutes twice a day — as a means to promote peace and unlock their creativity. They have trekked here since the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) was founded on the former Parsons College campus as a center of "consciousness-based education."
In the wake of Maharishi's death six years ago, one man arguably has become the most visible, stalwart supporter of TM: filmmaker David Lynch.
The 68-year-old director's eclectic and often bizarre body of work ranges from "Blue Velvet" and "Wild at Heart" to "Lost Highway" and quaint Iowa-bred tale "The Straight Story."
But the Internet erupted last week with the news that Lynch intends to resurrect perhaps his most beloved franchise: the "Twin Peaks" TV series.
The two-season network show that premiered in 1990 (and spawned a 1992 movie prequel) was set in a fictional small town in the Pacific Northwest. FBI agent Dale Cooper (portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan, uttering the signature "damn fine cup of coffee" line) arrives to investigate the murder of 17-year-old Laura Palmer and must navigate a cast of eccentric characters.
A single tweet Monday from Lynch sparked the frenzy: "Dear Twitter Friends … it is happening again," he wrote, with the hashtag #damnfinecoffee and a link to a drab but effective video teaser.
"Twin Peaks" 2.0 is due on Showtime in 2016.
Fairfield, meanwhile, might qualify as the Twin Peaks of Iowa with its sheer randomness of personalities; you never know whether you might run into a surfer or a nuclear physicist on the street.
The David Lynch MA in Film at the Maharishi University of Management in Fairfield and Vedic City began a year ago. The second year of the "Twin Peaks" filmmaker-focused curriculum is underway.
Most Lynch fans — including millennials belatedly hooked on "Twin Peaks" through binge streaming — probably are unaware that it's here where the director is launching an effort to train the next generations of filmmakers in his creative vein.
The David Lynch MA in Film program opened quietly last fall at MUM with 18 students. In April they trekked to the director's studio in Los Angeles as part of the capstone of their year-long curriculum. This fall another 15 students have convened from around the globe — some drawn by Lynch's films, some also enticed by his zeal for TM.
The master's program wasn't his brainstorm. It began with Joanna Plafsky, who sits with the filmmaker on the board of his David Lynch Foundation launched in 2005 to promote meditation in schools.
Plafsky taught TM in Fairfield 30 years ago as well as visual theory at MUM. She founded Nu Image Films (now Millennium Films, home to "The Expendables" franchise and other hits) as part of her long career in Hollywood.
"I had thought about a David Lynch name on some program here," said Plafsky, credited as the "benefactor" of the film school. "It wasn't necessarily film when I first thought about it. I just thought about having his name on anything that brought young people to Fairfield would be great."
The program was born in July 2013 as Plafsky sat at Café Paradiso — one local source of damn fine coffee — with media and communications department co-chairs Stuart Tanner (a former BBC filmmaker) and Gurdy Leete (an animation software engineer). The professors mentioned their desire to start a master's film program.
The Lynch school was up and running in little more than a month.
A year later that swift decision seems more pivotal: Lynch's last major movie was 2006's "Inland Empire"; he had since seemingly devoted most of his energy to spreading the gospel of TM.
But now the return of "Twin Peaks" plus the Lynch stamp on Iowa's newest film program almost feels like a push to cement Lynch's place in general pop culture while simultaneously boosting the fortunes of TM and the Fairfield university.
Wednesday night featured the first in a monthly series of Fairfield town hall meetings led by film school faculty designed to rally the broader local "creative tribe" around their efforts.
The program is housed not on the main campus but at Headley Hall in Maharishi Vedic City. The town of 250 or so was incorporated in 2001 north of Fairfield as the epitome of Maharishi architecture and principles.
A roomful of students last week watched a clip of the mud-slide scene from the 1984 Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner flick "Romancing the Stone" to help professor Dara Marks explain the "transformational arc" of storytelling.
A portrait of Maharishi gazed down from atop a bookshelf in the corner.
Students here study one course at a time as many of the professors shuffle in and out of Fairfield to teach.
John Raatz flies in monthly from Los Angeles as the program's executive director.
With actor Jim Carrey and spiritual author Eckhart Tolle he's the co-founder of the Global Alliance for Transformational Entertainment (GATE). Sitting in Revelations Café — still more damn fine coffee — Raatz last week defined the "cultural creatives" demographic, "a huge, emerging audience that Hollywood is not really aware of" that GATE intends to cater to.
GATE is not part and parcel with the film program. Students wield total creative freedom, Tanner said. But they meditate together twice daily in keeping with the university's TM-infused curriculum.
Typical for Fairfield, students bring a far-flung assortment of backgrounds:
Gregor Kresal from Slovenia, 45, was in search of a program to help finish his screenplay based on his former profession of 25 years: mountain-climbing.
Jennifer Kachler from New York recently was at work on a web series that shot scenes at Ashton Kutcher's childhood home in Iowa, where she met the actor's mom.
Karen Borger from Australia showed off the giant fish she bought at a local thrift shop, named "Rosebud" (think Orson Welles) and mounted on the wall of her office. ("Catching the Big Fish" is the title of Lynch's book about TM and creativity.)
Agnes Baginska originally hails from Poland. Lynch chose her short film "Milkmaid" as the winner in a contest for a $25,000 full scholarship. Otherwise she wouldn't have been able to afford the program.
"Having your little film recognized by someone like Lynch himself is just like every young filmmaker's dream," Baginska said.
Raatz and his fellow faculty and administrators have yet another goal in mind: a return of some form of state economic incentive for filmmakers now that the 2011 scandal at the former Iowa Film Office — millions of dollars in fraud as Hollywood producers gobbled up state tax credits — might have receeded enough from memory to be politically palatable once again.
Liz Gilman, executive producer of Produce Iowa, has had preliminary discussions with Raatz, Fairfield Mayor Ed Malloy and other locals. It might be a civic incentive that emerges first as a model before any revamped statewide lure is feasible.
Meanwhile, the Lynch film program emerges as MUM and TM continue to wrangle with what many outside observers characterize as the growing pains of a decades-old movement without a clear leader.
About 80 pandits at Vedic City threw rocks at a sheriff's truck in March, sparking a debate about the hundreds of "pandits" brought here from India to live modestly and meditate together to promote peace.
Also this year, The University of Iowa Press published the book "Trancendental Meditation in America: How a New Age Movement Remade a Small Town in Iowa," by journalist and professor Joseph Weber of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The critical analysis of TM basically proposes that what began with the baby boomers has opened itself to ridicule with some of its more extreme variations (such as "yogic flying") and may wither as it's handed down to successive generations.
TM proponents, meanwhile, see Weber's take as too narrow to appreciate their transformational goals.
Weber said last week that TM lacks a "charismatic successor" to Maharishi.
"Lynch is probably as close as you get," he said. But while the director extols the benefits of TM and rallies his famous friends, he doesn't wield the same authority as Maharishi.
"There is no guru," Weber said, "and that is a problem for the movement going forward."
TM always has been marketed with prominent celebrities, most famously by the Beatles with their 1968 sessions with the Maharishi in India.
More recently, the likes of Oprah, Jerry Seinfeld, Beatles Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Donovan, Russell Brand and others have either helped Lynch in his efforts or visited Fairfield.
Video of Carrey's commencement address in May to 285 MUM graduates was seen by tens of millions of people online.
Raatz will be busy Nov. 3 at the premiere of his friend Carrey's belated "Dumb and Dumber To" sequel before he jets back to Fairfield to resume his work at the film school.
There's no way to speculate yet whether any portion of the new "Twin Peaks" may be shot here. Fairfield lacks the evergreens and mountains to pass for the Pacific Northwest, but there's damn fine coffee (and meditation domes) galore.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or email@example.com. See more of his columns, blog posts and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/munson. Connect with him on Facebook (Kyle Munson's Iowa) and Twitter (@KyleMunson).