It's tricky to talk about ''independent film,'' because nobody is quite sure what that means. Independent of what, exactly? Of the big Hollywood studios, mostly, and the Hollywood preoccupation with salable stories. Apart from this, anything can happen. And usually does.
Sometimes an independent film is almost indistinguishable from its Hollywood counterparts, however. A good example is the current ''Heartland,'' a vigorous movie that's professionally crafted down to its bones. Financed by the National Endowment for the Humanities, made by production companies in Montana and New York, it's a strong argument for the present importance and potential of regional filmmaking - though, with its well-known cast and essentially conservative plot, it never wanders far from paths that have long been familiar to the cinematic establishment.
The time is 1910. The heroine is a Denver widow who decides to start life over by traveling to Burnt Fork, Wyoming, to keep house for a rancher. Life is hard, but she takes to it, and before long she has a homestead of her own, not to mention a new husband. Life continues to be hard. Yet it's clear she will prosper.
It's a pioneer story, pure and simple. No frills. And no rosiness, either -- there's plenty of hardship and even misery in store. What makes the tale worthwhile is its sense of commitment, its passionate concern for its characters and the brave new life they're carving out for themselves. The filmmakers obviously care a great deal about the period they're portraying, and the people who populated it. Their concern becomes our own, and the movie generates considerable momentum despite the simplicity of its plot.
''Heartland'' has had surprising success, as independent features go. After winning a passel of prizes and honors, it has gone into nationwide release on a regular commercial basis. This uncommonly high visibility may be due largely to the ''name'' actors in the cast: TV star Conchata Ferrell as the heroine, Rip Torn as the employer who becomes her husband, Barry Primus as a hired hand, Lilia Skala as a hardy neighbor, Amy Wright as a young pioneer.
But hefty credit for the film's high quality must go to director Richard Pearce and screenwriter Beth Ferris, who have plunged into their project with commendable zeal. Under their guidance, ''Heartland'' has joined the small band of praiseworthy regional movies that tell their stories and carry their emotions as much through landscape -- through sheer empathy with their surroundings -- as through the conventional means of plot and character development. It's a heartening achievement. 'Elective Affinities'
Meanwhile, what of the independent films that don't strive for Hollywood-style values? That strive for intellectual rigor, visual density, cinematic insight, and things like that, without giving a hoot about straight-ahead stories, recognizable characters, or spectators lined up at the neighborhood theater?
A main New York showplace for this kind of ''experimental'' film is the Whitney Museum of American Art, where the ongoing New American Filmmakers Series is in high gear. One recent entry illustrated the highest aspirations -- and some of the pitfalls -- of the most rarified sort of filmic exploration.
''Elective Affinities,'' by Larry Gottheim, takes its title from Goethe's novel. As readers will recall, the book's main metaphor is chemical: Lovers change alliances and connections much as elements might do under the guiding hand of a laboratory scientist. It is questioned, however, whether ''affinities'' are ''elective'' at all, or rather ''a necessity of nature'' that boils down to ''a matter of opportunity,'' as one character cleverly suggests.
In his massive film -- four parts running about 4 1/2 hours -- Gottheim delves into the affinities of the silver screen. Chief among these is the ever-popular partnership of sight and sound. But there are others: myth and symbol, thought and manifestation, language and image, and scads more that are suggested if not examined by this exhaustive flood of celluloid.
Gottheim works cumulatively. That is, he begins with the basics and proceeds toward complexity. The first section of ''Elective Affinities'' is entirely silent, with no sound at all. Swiftly, shots of nature flash across the screen, organized into couplets and triplets that ''rhyme'' visually. It's very fetching , though this ''Overture -- Horizons'' -- lacks the visual weight of some Stan Brakhage efforts along similar lines. More involving is the next segment, ''Mouches Volantes,'' in which high-contrast images of people on a beach (among other subjects) are counterpointed by a poignant sound track relating the sad history of a folk singer. ''A celebration of elusive relationships'' is how Gottheim describes it, though to make another comparison, its sensuous black-and-white images don't seem as compelling as those of Andrew Noren in his exquisite ''Charmed Particles.' The next part, called ''Four Shadows,'' would make a good teaching film. Four scenes and four soundtracks are repeated four times each, in all their possible combinations. And, such is the magic of motion pictures, each pairing of sound and picture seems ''right,'' no matter how far-fetched it really is. On first viewing, this experiment seems rather schematic. On second viewing it still seems schematic, though there's genuine charm in watching dusky streetscapes wash across the screen as apes howl and gibber in our ears, or seeing the apes themselves while halting voices recite Wordsworth.
It all leads up to Part 4, at once the most vivid and most obscure segment of the film: a ''Tree of Knowledge'' in which documentary snippets bounce enigmatically between nature footage and snatches of contemporary life, while variously combined sounds and images nourish one another in a hearty cinematic feast. ''Dare to freely move. Within. Beyond,'' Gottheim has written in notes to the work, indicating that he wanted in ''Tree of Knowledge'' to ''yield control'' and recapture some kind of innocent, primordial vision.
The quest still needs more work. Gottheim lapses easily into gracelessness -- the jiggly ''tree'' shots, for example, which recall Brakhage's weak spots as well as his strengths. And his ideas are sometimes more complicated than they are coherent, reflecting his bookish and somewhat humorless perspective. But he is a formidable striver after the shadows that fascinate him, and the Whitney is to be congratulated for making his magnum opus available for viewing in a single (marathon) sitting. New 'B Movies'
While some independent films veer toward Hollywood, and others have very little relationship with traditional moviemaking, there's a third breed that uses old-fashioned cinema as a launching pad, then takes off in its own unpredictable directions. That's where Scott B and Beth B come in - makers and purveyors of their own ''B Movies,'' and reigning rulers of a scruffy but vital new cinema scene.
It has been called the ''no wave'' scene, partly in homage to the rock-music ''new wave,'' and also to the French ''new wave'' that recycled the brash energy of low-budget Hollywood quickies into bona fide ''art films.'' The Bs are loaded with energy, enjoy working quickly, and thrive on low budgets. Yet in conversation they'll toss off references to Renaissance aesthetics, Brechtian alienation, and other highfaluting subjects with neither pretension nor condescension. The point is that they care about art, and film in particular, as much as they relish the ''punk'' life style and provocative politics that define the surface of their work.
Until recently, the Bs have worked entirely in super-eight film, making sustained features and concentrated shorts with equipment usually reserved for home movies. Their natural habitat is New York's downtown scene of rock musicians and experimental artists. If their performers are professional at all, they are likely to be rock personalities such as Lydia Lunch and Adele Bertei.
Their visual style has a gritty, streetwise look. They can churn out a feature for $3,000 - low even by ''experimental'' standards - and they don't mind working in a hurry. Their 90-minute ''The Offenders'' was shown as a serial at a rock club (Max's Kansas City) while it was still being shot, episode by episode. Others of their films were also made specifically for rock clubs, and they refuse to show their ''G-Man'' without a souped-up sound system.
What are B Movies like to watch? One critic calls the filmmakers ''space-age social realists,'' and seeing their pictures is a bit like reading George Orwell while listening to a punk-pop album at top volume. The characters are often nasty, the settings are desolate, the plots revolve around personal and political manipulation - whether it's ''The Trap Door,'' with a young man caught in a capitalistic nightmare, or ''Black Box,'' with the hero kidnapped into an ideological brainwashing machine. As funky as B Movies are, they show a desperate concern with the fragility of human freedom, and a fierce sympathy for underdogs of all ilks.
Like the punk rock and experimental art they often draw on, B Movies are not for everyone. Stay away if you insist on polish, in images or ideas. Yet the Bs are spreading: Their films have been shown widely in Europe, and in American venues from the Contemporary Art Museum of Chicago to the Philadelphia College of Art, to name just a couple. Armed with slowly growing popularity and financial grants, the Bs have now moved to 16-mm. film, which they hope will widen their audience when their new ''Vortex'' - about corporate skullduggery - comes out early next year. They are even anticipating a soundtrack album soon, on Neutral Records. Most recently, their collected works opened a super-eight festival at the James Agee Room of the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York, a regular theatrical engagement for regular moviegoers. If their films continue to deepen as they find a wider range of viewers, the Bs could become considerable forces to be reckoned with.'