Marilyn Monroe CD-ROMs are in mold of insubstantial summer 'beach books'


This is not a real beach. If this were a real beach, we would need a very large umbrella for shade enough to let us hope to squint at the dim screen of our laptop computer. This is a virtual beach, where heat and humidity conspire against productivity, and brains, like computers, are most often in slumber mode.

Here at Virtual Beach, the Sloth Police have banned all useful programs in the interest of assuring absolute nonproductivity. The only acceptable software here is the digital equivalent of "beach books," mindless, trashy and irrelevant.

Much of the World Wide Web would fill the bill, but it has been posted as off limits on the ground that surfing there would court the slight but growing danger of colliding with something useful.

Expert idlers know where to turn for unabashed triviality: our ever-growing stack of CD-ROMs. Moments later we have extracted not one but two titles devoted to Marilyn Monroe, star of screen, stamps and Norman Mailer's fantasies.

For a quick dip in the Monroe waters, Bernard of Hollywood's Marilyn (from the Corel Corp., about $50) is hard to beat. It comes with the standard features that have become multimedia cliches, including the now-classic opening message "Script Error: XLib file not found" that multimedia veterans have learned to ignore.

You get a timeline of Marilyn's life, including her film credits. You get trivia: "Marilyn was one of the worst-paid major movie stars in Hollywood history. In comparison, for their work in the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Marilyn was paid approximately $18,000, whereby her co-star, Jane Russell, earned over $100,000."

You get the obligatory collection of videos, including some good ones, like an early commercial for Royal Triton gasoline and newsreel footage of her arrival in Japan with Joe DiMaggio.

You also get the contents of a book by Susan Bernard about her TC father, the photographer Bruno Bernard, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. Since this is multimedia and not just text, you get the singular pleasure of not just reading Bernard's journals, but also hearing them read by an actor with a German accent.

With a talent for overstatement bordering on unintentional camp, the text documents a seedy postwar Hollywood at least as obsessed with glamour, sexuality and power as it is today.

The photos demonstrate that at the height of Production Code censorship, pin-up photography offered a pre-Playboy admixture of demureness and raciness that graced the pages of magazines like Laff, "The Humorous Picture Magazine," whose January 1947 cover featuring "Norma Jean Daugherty" headlined articles on "Stalin the Stinker" and "Beauty over Brooklyn." Back then the hot stuff was reserved for insiders.

This peculiar angle on Marilyn's rise to fame from a man who loved to be called "the discoverer of Marilyn Monroe" is absolutely made for Virtual Beach.

It is probably ungallant to complain about technical quality in a work of this stature, but the graininess of many of the photographs, videos and sound clips is hard to ignore. More information is available from (800) 772-6735. When you exit the program, Miss Monroe blows you a big black-and-white kiss.

To move from Bernard's world to that of Hard Evidence: The Marilyn Monroe Files (Novell Inc., about $40) is to move from beginnings to endings, from sex to violence.

Hard Evidence posts a reopening of the case of Marilyn Monroe's death. In attempting to find out what actually happened, you get to play cop, coroner, reporter or district attorney. Each character has access to different aspects of the case, so to ferret out all the facts, you must eventually try all four.

This requires perhaps a bit too much mental effort for Virtual Beach, and though the repetitive mechanics of getting from one place to another offer many thought-free moments, they are too quotidian for genuine summer enjoyment.

To move to your apartment, you must click on the apartment building, click on the elevator call button, click on the elevator wall, click on the floor button and click on the apartment door. By this time you hope a pina colada is waiting, but not even a virtual one is offered.

Despite all this, a strong whiff of trashiness keeps the Sloth Police at bay.

The suicide-or-murder scenarios involve the likes of John and Robert Kennedy, Peter Lawford, the Mafia and sleazy physicians. The evidence includes actual reports from the Los Angeles police and coroner, newspaper and magazine clippings and a collection of videos, including, if you can find them, some of the same clips as in the Bernhard title.

You also pick up clues by dropping in at the local bar, which happens to have a collection of Marilyn memorabilia as well as several patrons with inside knowledge of the case.

Poking around in actual coroner's reports begins to feel downright ghoulish, and though there is a lot of material on Marilyn, some of the juiciest rumors are reiterated but never entirely substantiated.

By the end of the quest (which I did not come close to reaching after a couple of hours), you will apparently have collected enough evidence for eight scenarios, but not enough to make any one of them stick with certainty. More information: (800) 451-5151.

The irritating "XLib" message appears here too. And oddly, for a title so steeped in Hollywood, the Capitol Records tower appears as a "TV Studio," the opening depicts traffic on New York City's Park Avenue, and the narration occasionally mispronounces words in ways no Valley Girl would comprehend.

That this title was produced in Germany may also account for a discrepancy between mouth movements and dialogue even more jarring than in most multimedia productions.

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